Getting Into Reading Lists

As I mentioned in a recent post, I’ve entered the part of the Ph.D. program known as the comprehensive exam prep. Instead of taking classes, I now stay at home and read a lot of books on subjects pertaining to my research. But what does that actually entail? Today, I’ll describe the reading process more deeply.

So many books, so little time

The process of putting together reading lists actually started last summer. When I wasn’t traveling for conferences, moving into a new place, or participating in the Keio program, I read books that I thought would either appear on future reading lists, or be used later for dissertation research. Most of these books were primary sources like John Cotton Dana’s writings on museums, the kind of thing I wanted to read in their entirety but knew would feel too rushed to do so during the actual comps process. Some of these books made it onto the list, others didn’t, but I’m still glad I read them.

I put the actual lists together during the fall semester. Working with a different professor for each subject matter, I came up with four different lists with about 50 titles apiece: Infrastructure/Classification, Archival Theory/Digital Humanities, US History, and Art History. Around mid-semester, I had a colloquium with all four professors where we discussed the lists, and continued modifying them for the rest of the term, all while finishing my coursework.

Once classes were finished, I worked out a preliminary schedule. My long-term objective is to get through all the titles by the end of July, so that I have time to review in August before the exam. Using Excel, I put each list into a spreadsheet. Since each list was divided into subheadings, I assigned dates for each subsection to keep myself on schedule, with the goal being to cover about 10 books a week, with extra time allotted to accommodate any conference travel, as well as breaks.

So how do you need 200 books in under eight months? The simple answer is you don’t. Instead of trying to read every book cover to cover, I use what’s known as the gutting method. I begin by looking over the table of contents to get a sense of the book’s organization. Then I read the introduction and conclusion to see what argument the author was trying to make. From there, I skim through the contents to get a sense of how that argument was put together. I might even read a chapter or two in their entirety to get a sense of the writing style and how the evidence has been used. Finally, I look over the notes and bibliography to see what kinds of sources were used. Once I do this, I take notes on all of the above, including a few notes that contextualize this book within the others I’ve read so far.

And how about note-taking? As with everything in graduate school, everybody does things differently, but I tend to work on the computer because it’s easier for me to stay organized. I personally like using a program called Zotero because it allows me to store both my notes and the metadata for a book in one place (I’ve also been using it since my days at Williams so I’m familiar with it). I’ve also been filling out index cards covering the basics of each book that I can use as flashcards when I’m reviewing. I’ve also started using mind maps to help visualize the networks among the books I’m reading.

The result? A book that would have taken me a few days to read I can now get through in a few hours. Yes, it means I’m missing a lot of the fine details, but the point is to discuss the basic argument and see how it fits into the scholarship of your fields. Trust me, I read every word of every assigned reading during my Master’s program at Williams, and I don’t remember anything beyond the basic arguments. This method may emphasize efficiency over savoring a book’s literary qualities, but it brings focus to my notes. I already know I won’t have time on the exam to go into minutiae, so I try to focus on the bigger picture. If I really want to delve into a book’s details word-for-word, I figure I can do that after comps, assuming that even remember I wanted to do that.

So that’s my basic approach. I’m still settling into my actual reading schedule, but once I do, I’ll start sharing some of my readings with you, and together, we’ll go on an intellectual journey together.

So How Exactly Do You Get a Ph.D., Anyway?

“So when do you finish your degree?”

I’ve been hearing a variation of that question since I arrived at William and Mary, but it’s picked up since I finished classes. It’s understandable though, because doctoral programs in the United States work differently from your standard K-12 schooling, or even undergraduate degrees. Today then, I’d like to go over the Ph.D. timetable, and where I stand in the program.

I’m in the comprehensive exam stage, also known as the “read your brains out” phase.

Before I get started, let me emphasize that I’m only talking about getting a Ph.D. in American Studies at William and Mary. Every university, every program within a university even, is different, so what I describe here may not apply to other schools.

Are you ready? Let’s go!

Stage 1: Coursework. This is the part I’ve just completed. Depending on whether you’re entering the program with a B.A. or an M.A., you take five or three semesters of classes. If you’re a B.A., you take five semesters and write a Master’s thesis at the end of your first year. Since I already came in with an M.A., I only took three semesters of coursework and wrote no Master’s thesis. The number of courses you take also vary according to where you are in the program. For the first two semesters, you take three classes. For the third semester (or fifth if you’re initially a B.A.), you take two. Technically you’re still signed up for three, but that third course slot is now dedicated to working on your reading lists for comprehensive exams.

Stage 2: Reading and Qualifying Exams. This is the stage I’ve just started. Every American doctoral program that I know of requires students to read a plethora of books appropriate to their fields, and then take exams on them. At William and Mary, I’ve got a reading list of about 200 books in four different fields: History, Art History, Archival Theory/Digital Humanities, and Infrastructure. For each list, I’m working with a different professor in terms of compiling works and assessing strategies. Over the next several months, I’ll work my way through these books (note I didn’t say “read”. In graduate school, it’s more about selective skimming than reading a text cover to cover). In late August, I’ll write a series of essays addressing each list and how the readings relate to one another, followed by an oral component. Think of it as an intensive immersion in the fields you’ll most likely be engaging in your dissertation.

Stage 3: Prospectus. This is when you write out your strategy for your dissertation. You’ll discuss the topic you want to address, the methods and readings you think you’ll engage, and the kind of intervention you intend to make.

Stage 4: Dissertation. This is why you’re in a doctoral program. After all that preemptive work, your task is to research and write a book-length scholarly text that makes an original contribution to your field of study while engaging the scholarship that preceded it. Like the exams, you have a committee of professors who work with you as you complete the text. If you’ve heard stories about Ph.D. students taking years to finish their degree, this is why. Since you’re no longer beholden to the standard academic schedule in terms of course assignments, etc., it’s up to you when you finish the project. It gives you a lot of freedom, but you’re also responsible for completing your own research, sticking to deadlines, etc.

Stage 5: Defense. This is like the comprehensive exam but now your work is the subject. Your committee reads the dissertation, and they question you on it. You’ll discuss its strengths and weaknesses, its contribution to the academic field, and overall why it’s a worthwhile document. If you pass, congratulations, you get your degree!

Stage 6: Postdoc. This depends on what you want to do once you’ve completed your degree. Some people jump into the job market right away, especially if they’re interested in nonacademic positions. For those who want to teach, however, a year-long postdoc appointment is a good way to get more teaching experience while looking for a longer-term position. It’s also a good opportunity to begin revising your dissertation for future publication, as a lot of the time these texts need to be rewritten for a less specialized audience.

So that’s the basic process. I like to think of it as a rocket launch. A rocket needs its massive fuel tanks to initially clear the atmosphere, but in order to achieve the lightness to get into space, it has to release those fuel tanks. Similarly, you needed to take courses at the beginning of the program to get a foundation in the field you’ll be studying, but in order to complete the dissertation and make an original contribution to that field, you need the time, space, and schedule flexibility to explore new ideas.

Credit: NASA/Wallops/Thom Rogers and Terry Zaperach . You can find this image at:

At least, that’s the ideal version. The reality is that your schedule gets filled with other things like teaching commitments, collaborations, other writing opportunities, applications for fellowships, etc. Not to mention writing a dissertation itself can be challenging and you won’t always want to work on it. But if you want to get that degree, you’ll find a way to finish it.

That’s how you get a Ph.D. in American Studies at William and Mary. As you can see, I’ve still got a ways to go, so you can wait a few years before asking me when I’ll be finished.

My Goals for 2020

With the new year comes a time for reflection and new aspirations. Since I already did some reflection in last week’s post, today I’d like to highlight my goals for the coming year.

First, some academic goals:

  1. Complete my exams: This is probably the most obvious one, but getting through exams is the next big stage in my doctoral studies. I’m scheduled to take them in August, so get ready for future posts that talk about what I’m reading.

2. Write my prospectus: Once you’ve taken your exams, the next step is to write your prospectus. This is where you talk about what your dissertation topic is, the methodologies you’ll use to research it, and what intervention you hope to make in the field. Since I already know what I want to write about, I have an advantage, but I’ll still have plenty to do to get it ready.

3. Continue applying to (and ideally presenting at) conferences: Beyond sharing your work and having experience to put on your CV, conferences are a great way to network, so I definitely plan on continuing to attend them.

4. Continue networking: As an introvert, this is one of my biggest challenges because talking about yourself and your work to lots of new people can be draining. It’s important to get your name out there though, so my goal is to continue expanding my network here. I’ve started making inroads at Colonial Williamsburg, the Chrysler Museum, and the VMFA. This year I’d like to get better acquainted with people at the Smithsonian and the AHAA.

5. Start working on a DH project: Since coming to William and Mary, I’ve been envisioning a digital component to my dissertation, something that can be available to the public. Rather than idly think about it, I’d like to actually start working on it, even if it’s just sitting down with an IT expert and sketching out preliminary ideas.

6. Start looking for opportunities to get my writing published: I’ve been making lists of prospective journals to publish my work. As I get ready to start working on the dissertation later this year, I’d like to target some prospective journals for publishing future chapters.

7. Start inquiring about putting together an exhibition on art centers: Being a curator, I often think about academic projects as installations. Since the Community Art Center Project was all about exhibitions, moreover, I think it would be a good opportunity to curate a show around its history and materials. It’s a tall order, but it’s worth exploring, both to give another dimension to my work and keep my hand in the curatorial business.

And Just as Important, Some Non-Academic Goals

  1. Keep making art: I committed to painting every day last year. This year I want to keep that habit by working consistently in different media. I’ve already finished one oil painting and am getting reading to start a silverpoint drawing. I’d also like to get back into printmaking more seriously.

2. Get back into baking: Readers of my old blog will know I like to bake, even getting into sourdough during my last year in Roswell. I haven’t done a lot of baking since coming here, but I’ve been changing that by getting a new sourdough starter going.

3. Play music regularly again: Last year I played my flute in the William and Mary Wind Ensemble, but I didn’t join this year because I wanted to leave my schedule open for TAing. Unfortunately, I ended up practicing very little as a result, so this semester I’d like to be more consistent about my music, whether it’s in a group or on my own.

4. Write a memoir: I started writing a memoir when I moved here about my experiences in Roswell, as I’ve got a number of experiences and insights I’d like to share, particularly for anyone thinking of working in small museums. That project got derailed once classes started, but I’d like to have another go at it. Even if I only write a page a day, as I learned from my writing workshop, that will amount to a lot of text over time.

5. Exercise: I already do this regularly, but now that I’m no longer in classes, it’s important to get out and move consistently. Right now I alternate my days with circuit training, going for walks, and riding my back. I’m also looking into taking up swimming and getting back into yoga.

6. Get out more: I used to go stir crazy in Roswell if I didn’t get out periodically, and as much as I like Williamsburg, the same applies here. With my schedule being more flexible now with classes finished, I’d like to explore Richmond and other places, whether on my own or with Brandon.

7. Continue spending time with Brandon: We have a great relationship because we believe in open, frequent communication, and giving each other space. Brandon is very understanding about the demands my program makes on my time, but it’s also important I spend quality time with him every day. Now that classes are finished and my schedule is more open, I definitely want to make sure we get to enjoy one another’s company.

Those are my goals for 2020. It’s a lot, but I see these as ongoing goals for this year and beyond. So here’s to a happy, healthy, and productive year for everyone!

My Year-Long Art Challenge: A Review

Last month, I finished off my year-long challenge to paint one daily abstraction for an entire year. Every day for 365 days, I completed a 2″ x 3″ abstract painting based on something I’d seen that particular day, whether it was a landscape, a bird in flight, the cats at play, and so on. Whether I was traveling, studying, or running errands, I managed to creatively interpret my surroundings, eventually producing 365 paintings (technically 366, because I did two marbled pieces one night). Today, as we embark on a new year, we’ll take a look back at this project and see the finished works as a whole.

Colors of Williamsburg (and Florida), December. This was the final month for my year-long project.

After finishing the final painting, I decided I wanted to see how all of the abstractions looked together as a whole. Although I’d consistently photographed each month’s worth of abstractions, I was curious to see what the entire year looked like as a whole. On January 1st then, I closed the doors to my study, grabbed my bundles of abstractions, and spread them out.

After about an hour of fiddling, I had this:

A year in the life, 2019. Collectively, these works measure about 5′ long by 3′ high. Each row represents a month, with January at the top, and December at the bottom. My mother thought this would make for a nice quilt, and if I ever learn quilting, maybe I’ll make it someday.

What’s interesting to me are the changes that take place over time, both seasonally and stylistically. The overall palette has a lot more green in it than the color blocks I did in Roswell, which isn’t surprising because they’re two very different ecosystems. You can definitely tell when seasons like fall happened, which also isn’t surprising since that’s my favorite season and I’ve always loved autumnal foliage.

What’s most intriguing to me is that the compositions became more complex over time. The color blocks for January and February, for example, are basically color fields with dots, which is what I was doing in the New Mexico abstractions. As I got used to painting every day, however, I started experimenting with different kinds of compositions and styles, with the latter months being more intricate while maintaining a sense of abstraction. By the end, there aren’t really a lot of color fields at all, and there’s more emphasis on asymmetrical balance. Again, I think it’s particularly evident in the fall images, where I was rendering vibrant yet similar color schemes in different ways.

So what am I going to do with all these abstractions? While I’d love to exhibit them all together someday, in the meantime I need to store them. During the year, I bundled each month with a rubber band, but for the finished project, I decided to put the paintings in a photograph album so that I can consult them easily for future projects. I can also easily them out and compare them, which I wouldn’t be able to do if I had pasted them in a scrapbook.

So do I have any particular favorite? Not really, because there are too many to just narrow it down to one (Brandon’s favorite is the one with our two cats on the right). There are some that I like more than others though, either because I especially like the colors, tried out some new technique, or otherwise challenged myself to try something new. The gingko piece on the left, for example, makes use of yellow and purple, colors I normally don’t use but work well here. The piece in the middle took inspiration from a Cubist painting I saw earlier this year, which is a different style for me. The piece on the right is whimsical without being too cutesy, and effectively sums up our two cats’ personalities. The red background, in case you’re wondering, is a red blanket they both like.

Other abstractions I like because they’re connected to pleasant memories or events. The one on the left here, for example, is based on a Heathergem brooch Brandon got me for Christmas. The one in the middle takes inspiration from a tulip poplar leaf Brandon collected for me, as he thought I would enjoy painting it. The one on the right recalls the view from I-64 as we took a trip to the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk.

Indeed, a lot of my favorite ones are connected to Brandon, as he’s enthusiastically supported me throughout this project. He was the first one to see each abstraction as it was painted, offered suggestions for potential compositions, and even brought home materials that he thought I would like to paint. It only seemed appropriate then, to end this year-long project with an image of him. And since he especially liked the paintings that featured the cats, I included them too:

So that’s been my year-long art journey, and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. I’ve demonstrated to myself that small interventions can build up into a big artistic project, a lesson not unlike what I what from my daily writing workshop last spring. Some abstractions I only spent five minutes on, others forty-five or more, but they all contribute to a bigger vision. As a painter, I feel more confident working both abstractly and using different painting techniques. I’ll also be using these abstractions in future works for years to come, and already have ideas for new projects. All in all, it’s been a great experience, and I’m glad I challenged myself to it.