The Exam List Challenge

This year it was difficult for me to explain to friends and family what I was up to.  My shorthand was, “I’m studying.”  But preparing for doctoral qualifying exams seems like a lot more than just “studying.”  It was a challenge in time management, information synthesis, and really a wake-up call to the amount of literature that exists in a given field.  Most days I felt overwhelmed.  A good number of days I felt incredibly isolated and alone.  It isn’t fun, but when it is done it is incredibly rewarding.  I successfully finished the process last week!

Every program approaches the comprehensive exam process differently.  In my department, we are tested on all of our respective fields in the same two-hour timeframe.  We have to answer questions orally in front of our committee with on-the-spot questions.  The qualifying exam process is not a uniform one, and I suggest studying to fit the “performance” you must complete to pass the exam.  That said, for those scrambling to find good study strategies to absorb a copious amount of information (or, at the end of it all, to have a good archive-base to tap into at a later date) I wanted to share the five methods that *successfully* made me feel prepared for my exam.

  1. One book: one index card

An alumna of my program gave me this idea, and this was by far the most helpful study strategy I had in my back pocket.  It was a lot of work in the moment, and I ended up changing the strategy slightly in the middle of my first semester of reading.  But now I have almost 100 cards that represent about half of the books I read for my exam period.  If I did this strategy over again, I would commit to making sure each and every book I read had a card.  My timing (and exhaustion) prevented me from doing this, but the books that got one were the ones I remembered the best.

At first, I wrote very short summaries on each index card for each book, but I found that I was still getting caught up in the details of the texts.  In one meeting with my main advisor, I became frustrated when I learned that the information I was remembering wasn’t the information he wanted me to take away from the text.  He assured me that this was part of the process, and encouraged me to think about why I wanted to do the project I was doing, and ask the same question of the author I was reading in the 2-3 hour moment.  “What is the ‘bee in their bonnet’?  Why are they writing this in the first place? ” he asked me.


So, my cards became a little more point-oriented.  I wrote a “Bee in Bonnet” – which was really just the thesis statement of a given book – and provided three to five “points” made in the text that helped support or answer this bee.  This process immediately clicked for me.  When reviewing, I was not only able to describe a main point of a book but some bare-bones evidence that were detailed but streamlined so I didn’t get caught up in the tiny points of the text.  This strategy also helped me read more efficiently.  I looked for the evidence that best supported an author’s argument, and if I had trouble finding it, I knew this was something I could critique about the text.  With my four lists, I color coded my index cards.  If I had enough room on the back of the card, I would sometimes write an author or two of relevance who was cited and also on my list.  This helped illustrate who was in conversation with whom on my list.



  1. One book: one Tweet

At the very beginning of my studying, I thought that I needed to be super succinct with my understanding of the books.  After writing extensive notes while reading, I tried to limit the point of each book to 140 characters on my Twitter page with the hastag: #examlistchallenge.

Pros: The Twitter archive with this hashtag is helpful to pull up time and again.  I took pictures of the title pages of the books for reference.  I was able to distill the main points into a very tiny bite.  And, at times, fellow #twitterstorians saw my Tweets and engaged with them – letting me know which books their favorites were through likes and retweets.  It was fun, and it gave me a presence on the academic Twitter network flagging to others “hey, she is working on comps!”

Cons: The very tiny bites were at times too tiny.  I wasn’t able to remember what I tweeted as well as what I wrote down on the index cards, and this may have to do with kinesthetic or visual memory preferences on my part.  I also sometimes took way too long thinking through ag, tech, sci, and med emojis rather than the actual arguments in the books.

  1. Monthly write-ups for each list

With my committee, I was actually *required* to provide write-ups based on the books I read over a two to four week period.  When I initially compiled my lists, I created different sections to organize the lists thematically or chronologically, depending on the desires of my advisor for each list.  The way my department approaches the oral exam period is that it is a year-long endeavor.  The “courses” we complete over the year are actually independent studies with our committee based on the theme of each list.  I met with each advisor throughout the year and “checked in” for one hour each month, going over my thoughts on what I had read to the point of our meeting.  The list I made was basically my syllabus, and each meeting required some discussion about my write-up on a theme or set of themes for my list.

If you do not meet with your committee regularly, I feel these write-ups are incredibly useful for starting to synthesize how many books can be in conversation with one another in a given field.  These write-ups became the basis for my other study strategies as I continued to pare down ideas and books that correlated with these ideas.  I also started to write questions and comments related to my dissertation in these write-ups, which I have since been using for proposals and grant applications.

  1. One write-up: one to two index cards


You are probably wondering what is up with these index cards.  I even had a colleague come up to me while I was studying and explain that the last time she used index cards was for a biology exam in her undergraduate years.  But trust me, the actual making of index cards coupled with their transport-friendly size saved my butt for this exam.

After writing the synthetic (or, semi-synthetic) monthly write-ups, I condensed my thoughts even further onto a notecard in a “map” format.  What does this mean?  I basically provided a script for myself that locked in the main points of a particular theme and the books I read that helped support these points.   These were the most helpful study tools I made in my longer study process.  My last two days were spent mulling over these purple cards, thinking about the various ways my fields overlapped one another and the ways they diverged.  Because I only had two hours to talk about four different fields, these cards helped me remember the books that were most important to *me* when thinking through the ideas held in my lists: historiographically, historically, and methodologically.

  1. The study buddy


This may be a no-brainer, but aside from the “map” cards I made, my study buddies made this exam process so much more bearable if not semi-enjoyable.  For the month before our exams, a colleague and I would meet at a local coffee shop off campus and ask practice questions about our books and about our respective dissertations.  We exchanged lists and (attempted) to personify our committee members.  We both found that as we talked, we surprised ourselves with what we remembered in our year of reading.  We were able to self-reflect on which ideas, books, or themes we felt most uncomfortable talking about, and these were the areas we would spend more time studying on our own time.


The most important thing to know, regardless of your study method, is that you are not alone in this process.  Though it is arguably an exercise of learning and processing information by yourself, always know that there are faculty, student, and online networks you can tap into to make the process worthwhile.

Writing Reflections: Cutting Back the Forest

This week, I had the pleasure to contribute to Nursing Clio‘s “Bites of History” section.  For those unaware, Nursing Clio is a collaborative academic blog that has gained a great bit of traction in the academic world.  It is a site for innovative academic writing and for bite-sized (pun totally intended) blog posts engaged with current events/culture using historical primary source material.  I learn so much from posts on Nursing Clio.  Those who manage the site also have a great commitment to accessible writing, which makes it a great source for budding historians (my undergrads love this site!).

One important caveat to good, accessible academic writing is knowing when and where to end a conversation.  As I was writing “Milk: A History of Tasting What Cows Eat,” I had to make some very difficult decisions on what to include and what to cut.  Why is this so hard for academics to do?  Because many of us are managing many different kinds of information at once, often forgetting that the debates and conversations held in the ivory tower do not always translate to a general audience (or sometimes, even, to the larger discipline)!  We get stuck in the details of our own interests and the interests of the people we want to readily speak to.  It’s hard to zoom out and see the forest instead of the moss on the trees – as one of my advisors so eloquently put it.



Taking a birds-eye view is tough!  I’d rather get to the nitty gritty of this rock, mildew, or the people in those houses.  Photo Credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger (Albuquerque 2015).


For the past few months, I’ve been sitting in coffee shops reading and studying for my comprehensive exams.  This is why the personal blog has been so neglected.  My brain is not only filled with more information than I can handle, but I’m constantly having to consider and re-consider what my dissertation is and who it will be speaking to.  I find myself constantly caught in the weeds of the details of my agriculture history literature, not to mention the mass of data I’ve already collected to start writing the first few chapters of my dissertation.  How the heck am I to write a succinct blog entry when I’m reading through four lists of different historical and anthropological material?  What makes it all connect, and how do I make these connections in a brief, but clear, way?

The advisor who asked me to consider my forest suggested I pitch to Nursing Clio‘s call for histories of nutrition.  As a historian of animal nutrition, I had so many ideas and I didn’t know where to start.  I knew I wanted to speak to historians of medicine and agriculture historians, but I also wanted to consider environmental historians, historians of technology, and food scholars.  This was way too ambitious, and I knew I couldn’t write explicitly, “as these scholars have suggested, and you, and I’m also talking to you, and you, and you, and you, and you!”  I wasn’t going to make an interesting argument AND sing a rendition of La Vie Boheme in 1,000 words or less.  So I went simple and started with a movie scene many people were familiar with from Napoleon Dynamite.

The movie, in all of its awkward tendencies, heightened the awkwardness with the decision to make Napoleon and his friend, Pedro, members of their high school FFA program.  When the movie was released, I couldn’t quite make sense of this decision.  My hometown was not only familiar with FFA but very supportive of the program.  My parents were in FFA.  I almost joined FFA (a story for another time).  But for those unfamiliar with the organization, this narrative decision made the outcast characters in the film pushed even more to their high school’s periphery.  So I decided to bring the FFA milk tasting scene from this film back into context using history and current events.  Thus, my Nursing Clio article was born.

I could have expanded on the subject of milk tasting in many different ways, but I’m happy I stayed with the history of tasting contests, how tasting “tests” continue today, and how tastes may be perceived differently with the advent of animal-free milk.  You’ll have to read the post for the details!  As a complimentary writing reflection, however, I want to reveal three other points I wanted to engage with but that didn’t make the cut for accessibility/organization/clarity purposes.  I hope this illustrates how purposeful writing is and can be, particularly when trying to craft something for a wider audience.

  1. My hometown and personal FFA/4-H background.


This was an alternate way to speak to the wider audience.  I had to make the decision to either use my personal story to get readers engaged, or to use a more popular source like the film clip.  As my first post with Nursing Clio, I decided to go the popular route.  This helped me form a catchy introduction, and stay focused with the purpose of the piece.  Personal reflections, though helpful, can sometimes get the “TMI” mark rather than the “ICYMI” on Twitter.

2. Feeding cows (or, uh, giraffes?) Skittles is a big deal right now.


The great Skittles debate has gained some traction in the news.  But, I felt I talked about animal feed in enough detail for the purposes of the post. I mean, my whole dissertation is about animal feed!  I actually made the decision to use the room in my post to speak briefly about animal-free milk instead of this.  This is because I have been making efforts to use my academic work to speak to environmentally conscious food consumers, including vegans.  The questions I pose at the end of the post are, in ways, meant to be an open-ended reflection for this group.  If I talked about Skittles, I wouldn’t have had time to talk about animal-free milk.  Too many ideas, not enough room!

3.  The science of animal-free milk may impact the formula v. breastfeeding debates.


Nursing Clio has a commitment to discussions on the history of gender and sexuality.  I really wanted to speak to this more directly in the post but decided the subtleties would be enough.  With cows as female animals and men (problematically) dominating the science of milk for so long… the gendered labor and gendered animals backdrops are there.  But, I could have gone into this formula/breastfeeding topic in a few ways.  Some of my primary sources noted that women (really, secretaries) at the extension schools preferred “silage milk,” and one historical interpretation for this inclusion in the scientific reports may be because milk, in general, was being marketed most to mothers for feeding children.  This seemed like an unnecessary tangent for me to get into, so it was cut.

Human milk is also being tested to make synthetic breast milk, and they are using similar processes developed by the bovine-focused Muufri/Perfect Day.  But these tests are still “beta,” as human milk proteins are much more complex than bovine ones.  Getting into the weeds of this feminist/reproduction angle, I had to ask myself what the purpose of my particular post would be: connections between human and animal milk?  Animal welfare? Milk tasting?  I decided to focus my writing on this idea that tasting milk has historically meant tasting a particular feeding decision/relationship.  This doesn’t have the simplest history, but a quick snapshot, I believed, could get readers thinking… at the very least about the Napoleon Dynamite clip being part of a longer history.  Readers could get to some of these other topics I wanted to talk about on their own with some digging.  Perhaps they could even be the subject of future articles.


What is your writing process, and does it change with the genre?  When have you made the decision to cut out ideas in your writing for the purposes of clarity?  Would love to hear your thoughts!