Monday, December 13, 2010

my comps experience (the sequel)

Remember how I wrote that long post about how hard--but satisfying and educating--the comprehensive exam process was? Ended it on a 'I'm glad that is over' type of note, and all that jazz?

And then a few weeks later when I found out I failed one of the three.

And that really killed me. Because it hadn't seriously occurred to me that I wouldn't pass. I'm a good student. I always pass. And there was a grading rubric that led me to believe as long as you wrote coherent sentences and did a decent amount of research, you'd be OK.

So when I got the email entitled "Deficiency of Comprehensive Exam" I was completely shocked at how I handled it. I am not the emotional type, but I felt numb. Big drippy tears all over my desk at work. Then I tried to suck it up, but I finally composed an email to my coworkers stating that I wasn't feeling well and needed to take the rest of the day off. (I filled my boss in on the reason later.) I piled into my car and drove home -- barely functioning -- and then laid on the floor in front of the fireplace with a bottle of that Long Island Iced Tea mix (you know, the cheap one in the plastic jug?) and a lot of Halloween candy. I spent my afternoon that way, just disbelieving. Sulking. Being miserable and angry. All that work. ALL THAT WORK. Some of what I thought was my BEST WORK. Let's just FLUSH IT DOWN THE TOILET OKAY?

The pessimist in me says "this is what happens when you let yourself think the best outcome will befall you." It was back to glass-is-half-empty living for me. Which is good because a few days later, I found out I didn't pass the other two either. But I'll get to that in a minute.

The next day I was able to compose myself enough to go to work. I also called someone in the department and received advice on how to rewrite it. I didn't necessarily agree with his advice at the time, but I took copious notes and was happy he was willing to share so much help.

But it still sucked. I still had to do it over. So much work. But at least it was just one of them right? Yeah, like I said, I soon found that the other readers decided I needed to do some revising too. One of the questions needed only minor edits, while the other had some pretty major revisionary work requested.

Thankfully, by then I had some perspective. Others--academic folks I respect at work, friends and family who've been there--came out of the woodwork to tell me they hadn't passed theirs in the first shot either. My advisor provided a wealth of uplifting and helpful advice. One piece that stuck with me throughout the re-write process:
"At this level of learning, hard work does not always guarantee mastery; it is just a prerequisite."

And at least they were letting me edit/revise/rewrite. Some programs and some types of comps do not offer this luxury. You don't pass, you have to wait. Sometimes it's a month, sometimes it's a term, and I've even heard of having to wait a whole year before being allowed to re-test. So I'm fortunate there. Failure of this test thankfully did not push back my progress any more than whatever amount of time it took me to pass it.

However: wouldn't be granted approval to start my dissertation until I received a full passing report on it. So it was in my interest to get it passed. Oh and... they give you three weeks from the date of the deficiency report to turn in the revised one. So I had to get it done. And I found out right before leaving for that conference in California for a week. Awesome.

So that was a wasted week. (Not wasted, because it was a great conference. But wasted in terms of time-that-should-be-used-to-finish-comp-revisions.) Also, don't forget that I still have my job, and I still had my classes and the work associated with them, plus the make-up assignments for having been gone for the conference.

So. With no shortage of high-priority demands, a mile-long to-do list and not a shred of free time in sight, I checked out 15 or so more library books. I was getting nervous at this point that the librarian would tell me I had reached the limit of books you're allowed to have checked out at a time (I still had a pile of them at home). Turns out, I wasn't even close. It's 200. I feel for the poor soul for whom they had to define a limit like that.

Anyway, back at home, chained to my desk, with butt and legs falling asleep from sitting on my lumpy old $50 office chair. Shoulders tensed into a semi-permanent hunch. I cut my long, perfectly-edited, beautifully-written failure of a paper down to 2 choppy pages, filled with outlining notes.

I started to understand what they didn't like. I sulked some more. I looked at it. I printed it out and looked at it some more. Wrote a sentence here or there, but was largely unproductive for long spans of time.

At some point--dangerously close to when they were going to be due--I realized that I was paralyzed by the fear that I might not pass them, again. And then what? Another three weeks wasted? Would I be allowed to keep revising? Did I have time for that? (The answer to "Do I have time for _____" is almost ALWAYS "No," by the way.) Sometimes though, you just have to do your best (and if they don't like your best, you have to do better). I finally wrote.

I wrote and wrote and wrote. At exactly the three week due date, I turned in 90 pages of rewritten, revised, or otherwise reworked academic gibberish. My confidence was gone and I was feeling completely sullen about the whole thing. When I turned it in this time, I didn't feel free or lighthearted, nor was there any spring in my step as I left the administration office. I pretty much just drove over to Target and bought us some toilet paper and coffee filters and broccoli and whatever else, and went back to work. Life goes on, and sometimes you're living it with the knowledge that you just spent basically half a semester doing and redoing something you can't publish, turn in for credit, or otherwise use except for this solitary purpose. And you're pretty sure it's still not even good enough for said solitary purpose.

So you can imagine my relief on Friday when I found out I passed them all this time. Suddenly those hours (days, weeks, months) spent researching, writing, worrying, obsessing and sulking don't seem quite so worthless.

Now it's time to dissertate.