Breathe Deeply, Too

Margaret’s here for her last visit before her exams (at Duke they’re “preliminary exams,” other places “comprehensive exams,” either way “the last essay exams she’s likely ever to take, and for that matter she hasn’t taken any in years beforehand”). We’re attuned to the very high probability that she’ll pass with flying colors, but the stakes and the contingencies amply warrant a degree of anxiety, which we’re working on strategies for disarming.

Speaking very strictly for myself, I was always much more impressed by exams that demonstrated articulate familiarity with a topic than those that tried to replicate the content of a research paper (more or less successfully). I envision being stuck in an elevator with a doctoral candidate and some other scholar, and expecting that the doctoral student wil sound as though she knows her business. In an elevator, you don’t need a full bibliography; you need a good perspective on things. So explaining and articulating are two attainable and impressive goals.

The other point we’re coaching her on involves remembering that her committee will involve at least one person who’s relatively ignorant about each area she’s covering. If she writes the exam to explain that topic to the least-well-informed reader, she can then use the oral to demonstrate her more nuanced apprehension of the topic.

By keeping the “clear explanation to the less-well-informed” function in view, we hope to fend off the sorts of tension and brain-lock that would entail the most evident problem for her exams. Of course, every institution (and every committee and department) varies, so our strategy won’t apply equally well to all dissertators (who themselves vary; Margaret, for instance, simply can’t do the “take a practice exam” approach).

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