Exams, Generally

Photostory,Reflections December 5, 2013 3:02 am

General exams are meant to test a graduate student’s comprehensive knowledge of fields related to her research and qualify her for a PhD candidacy.  Or, so I’m told.  After nine months of reading 285 books and articles, scheduling 60 hours of meetings, writing 261 pages of responses (roughly 117,450 words), I’ve finally made it to exam week. Three fields, three written exams, and one oral exam.  No problem.  Below is a photoblog recounting the process of exam week.

11/17 The Day Before the Exam

06-IMG_8549 Discovered some notes on Mumford from my first year!  I’m not really sure how to decipher all this.  In the mean time, I’ll just keep waiting for tomorrow…

11/18 Monday: STS  Woke up at 5am to get ready for my first day of writing.  I’m feeling pretty comfortable with STS, but since I haven’t taken a 7-hour exam before, I’m wondering how all this will turn out.

08-IMG_8573 8:20AM. The exam room.

09-IMG_8576 Stopped by Trader Joe’s the night before to stock up on snacks.

10-IMG_8578 About two hours into the exam, I’m getting pretty hungry.  I answered question #2 first and just finished putting together a syllabus for a class about bodies (omg bodies!!), which turned out better than I expected.  A few days before, I was totally blanking on how to answer the syllabus question, but after talking to other folks, it helped to identify my favorite readings and then think about how they related with each other.  (thanks, Mitali!)

11-IMG_8584 Zoning out in the fifth hour.  It’s hard to keep focused on one question for so long.  I’m not really using my written notes at this point, but I am putting the cheese puffs to good use.  As I’m writing, I’m realizing how early STS is heavy with theory, and it seems as if we haven’t moved far from Fleck, Popper, and Bourdieu.  I mean, ANT is pretty useful, but the fundamental questions remain, especially ones that deal with how particular individuals or groups of people incorporate the objective into the subjective.  This process is a blurry one, but standards of epistemology matter.  Boundaries in ontology matter.

12-IMG_8588 Finally done with exam #1!  Celebrating with ginger spice cake in the office.

11/19 Tuesday History of medicine is tomorrow.  Even though the exam is closed notes, David Jones was pretty explicit about his expectations, so I know how to prepare.  I’ve done all the reading, can say something about each book, practiced putting together a syllabus, and re-read some favorites.  What’s interesting about this list is that there are so many conflicting accounts of the rise of institutions and professions in medicine.  It’s different among states, cities, countries, and time periods.  I can tell you about a particular history of a particular asylum, but it doesn’t apply to all cases.  So histories are inherently comparative.

13-IMG_8590   Finally leaving the office.

11/20 Wednesday: History of Medicine  It is cold today.  But I am ready. 14-IMG_8595

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The sun is out!  This will help to keep time.  Almost two hours in, and I think I’m spending too much time trying to perfect the syllabus.  This just means less time for lunch.

20-IMG_8627 Not yet halfway through the exam and I’m hungry again.  Instead of two  questions in seven hours, there are six, which helps me to focus because I can switch gears and talk about different sets of books without trying to come up with stimulating questions on my own.  I’m trying to write as much as I can, and it turns out that I’m recalling more than I realize about the books.

15-IMG_8596 Finished with the exam!  And there is a surprise on my desk!  What could it be!? 16-IMG_8602Well-wishing-part-celebratory Kit-Kat from Amy!  Kitto katto!  I’m not done yet, but I’m feeling like a winner.

11/21 Thursday17-IMG_8605 Gearing up for China!  I’ve spent most of the day reading different textbook histories to have a better sense of 20thC chronology because most of my monographs fall into early 20th century republican history with a couple books on late and post-Mao China.  It’s only now that I’m feeling a little more confident about this list.  I love reading about Chinese bodies and histories of medicine, but my political and social history could use some more work.

11/22 Friday History of Modern China Another cold morning.


No sun today.


Back in the exam room.  What I think I’ve come to appreciate about 20th century China is the amount of confusion in how to write a history of it.  Historians have their own biases, and it’s easy to be captivated by the raging passion in crafting Chinese native nationalism, and because of this, starting points matter even more.  As I was writing, I was thinking about how STS can serve as a framework in shaping the kinds of questions we ask about China, especially in dealing with the modern/traditional, native/foreign, science/pseudoscience binaries.


Just finished the bag of cheese puffs.  I’m a bit slower with this response since I keep re-writing parts of paragraphs.  And because it’s open notes, I keep looking up things that I jotted down from before.  I’m slowing down in the last hour.  I know I’m so close.  So close to being done. 23-IMG_8639

FINISHED WITH THE WRITTEN PART OF THE EXAM!  I averaged around five thousand words for each essay, which is pretty normal.  Now it’s time to read these things.   I didn’t give myself enough time to proofread, so some sections are kind of awkward.  That’s ok.

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Finally leaving the office on Friday night.  Snapchat courtesy of Amy Johnson.

11/23 Saturday 30-Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 1.11.44 PM

Today is a day of rest.  I’m taking my mind off of things, doodling and catching up on Once Upon A Time.  It also helps that we often work in the reading room, which happens to be our exam room.

11/24 Sunday

Now getting ready for the oral exam.  I’m told that you can’t actually prepare for it, so I re-read my exam responses and started on a new book about leprosy in China.  But my brain feels like a vacuum.  I know nothing.  Nothing!


11/25 Monday! Just finished the oral exam!!  It  happened in a flash, and I think that there were a few big questions that I could have answered better.  Natasha asked me how I would define “bodies” in my syllabus, and I actually didn’t know how to answer coherently because my head was so deep into theories of it.  I should have said something like, “Bodies–we all have one!”  I mean, then there is a difference between bodies as embodiment, bodies as flesh,  bodies as metaphor, and bodies as bounded.  But never mind!  David was pushing me to clarify what made mental illness difficult to define for historians, and I didn’t really follow my gut, which was thinking that it’s difficult to locate and and localize diseases of the mind.  Is it in the brain?  In tissue lesions?  In neuronal networks?  What is at stake in measuring the efficacy of treatments?  Bah, there is probably more to say about this.  Chris  asked me an interesting question about whether “China” for historians was a people, a culture, or a place, which is super interesting, and I had been thinking about that too because of how people-centered histories of China are.  What does it mean to write a history of a civilization?  What is at stake to produce a biography of a group of people? This is where ANT would come in really handy.

25-IMG_8643 Surprise party in the office!

26-IMG_8656 I have passed.

27-IMG_8672 My books turned into flowers!  Exciting surprise from Mitali, Amy, and Renee!

28-IMG_8675 I can think of no other words to describe how I feel.

Up next: writing grants and the dissertation proposal.


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