My strategy for Comps

Typing a kleine Tag und Nachtmusik of ideas
After recently sharing a few thoughts with Josh Leim, a fellow ThDer in NT, I figured I'd go ahead and post a longer version here. If they're helpful to others, great.  For those unfamiliar with doctoral programs, comprehensive exams follow the period of course work (usually two years, sometimes three) and must be passed before you can proceed to the writing of the dissertation.

I realize everyone's situation will be particular--with respect to institutional arrangements, the expectation of supervisors and committee, personal disposition and station of life, for starters. This is what seems to be working for me thus far (even as I type this entire section with my left hand while I hold a sleepy-fussy Blythe in my right, sitting in my pajamas in the early hours of Sunday morning).

1. First, I made sure I read the material posted on the ThD page. Once I understood this, I then sent an email to our director.

2. In the email I asked a question for clarification. Would the exams be testing knowledge we'd acquired through course work and anticipating material we'd need to know for our dissertation, or would it primarily focus on material we'd learned in our courses? The answer was the latter. That was helpful because it provided me with one of the essential items I would be looking for throughout this experience: good boundary lines.

3. In consultation with my primary supervisor, Jeremy Begbie, I determined the categories for which I'd be examined. Corresponding to my primary, secondary and dissertation areas, they would be: "Theological Aesthetics," "Pneumatology" and "Liturgical Theology."

4. I then drafted a list of books and articles for each category. Knowing that I would eventually land somewhere between 50 and 75, I began with an excess of material, somewhere around 100. These constituted the material I felt I needed to know and wanted to know.

5. After sending this list to Jeremy and then also to Lester Ruth, my secondary supervisor, requesting their editorial eye, I trimmed the list to around 70ish, give or take a journal article. This is the material I would wrestle with, know, memorize and then argue pro or con in the exams.

6. While some students know their questions in advance (and that doesn't actually make the exam easier), Jeremy informed me that I would encounter my questions on the day of the exam. I would have 14 days within which to take all three exams.

7. Here then the first strategy. The exercises which this preparation involves are several. The first exercise involves knowing the material well. To that end I read the book or article, then summarize the material in the following fashion:

- The book's/article's thesis
- Key issues or ideas that the material raises
- Key critiques on my part (both pro and con)
- Key quotes

I write a summary for every book or article I read.

8. The second strategy moves beyond knowing the material to being able to put the material in my own words and to determine where I agree or disagree with it, and to discern how I might state or build the argument differently.

9. This second strategy leads logically to a third one: determining a large-scale thesis for each category. What do I think about theology and the arts? How do I think they ought to be related to each other? Which thinkers have done the best job in this task? What are the critical issues with respect to the data of Scripture, the data of creation and culture, the data of significant figures in church history (Irenaeus, St. Gregory, Aquinas, Calvin, Von Balthasar, Wolterstorff, etc) and how they have been played off each other, constructively, critically or otherwise? What methods have been employed, assumptions made, terms defined and audiences factored in explicitly or implicitly with regard to the arguments?

Those are the kinds of questions that matter, to my mind.

10. Instead of leaving these answers scattered across a ream of sheets and post-it notes and the back of my hand, I've decided to organize them in a way that profits me short term and long term. For each category I will write a "10 Theses" document.

11. For example, I've written a "10 Thesis on Liturgical Theology." Doing this provides two benefits. One, it forces me to decided what I believe with conviction and what I believe light-handedly.  Two, it gives me a good sense of what I'll teach when the day comes. How do I see liturgical theology in particular, the corporate worship of the church in general? The document begins, "If Christian worship in its corporate, public form is trinitarian, then the following will hold true." Then I go on to make ten statements which I believe hold true, and I write two versions of it: an abridged and an unabridged version.

12. The abridged version I memorize by heart. If you wish, stop me at some point and make me recite my ten theses about corporate worship. It'll take me 4 minutes flat.

13. The unabridged version relates to my short- and long-term goals. In this version I follow each thesis with a "pro" and a "con" section. With each, I provide supporting material to justify my claims. I also identify which thinkers/writers play a significant role in clarifying my thinking on an issue. For instance, thesis #5 goes like this (assuming that corporate worship will be trinitarian):

"That it will be personal and communal because, through the Spirit, Christians are made actively to participate in the Son's communion with the Father."

Some of you will know exactly whose language I've confiscated here--James Torrance's in his masterful book, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace. Plus there's a dash of Simon Chan, an echo of Robert Taft and a nod to the methodological approaches of Wainwright and Witvliet. Anything less than this, I argue, makes it too easy for our worship, both theoretically and practically, to slip into binitarian or unitarian modes.

14. In short, the unabridged version of my "10 Theses" becomes the cheat sheet for the exam. While I don't know what I'll be asked, I do know what I think and believe about the subject and I have a reasonable sense of how my arguments will resonate with or part ways with my primary interlocuters.

15. All extracurricular activities this term have to serve the larger purposes of preparing for comps. I give three talks at Tyndale College (Toronto) in October, I give one talk at the Anglican Worship conference in November, and I may be traveling to NYC in early December for an Orthodox conference on beauty. All talks will dovetail with material related to my exams. It isn't an option otherwise.

While my original date for exams was late November, I've decided to shift them to early January. With the arrival of the lovely Ruby Blythe Marie, things have needed to shift. As always, family and the well-being of my soul take precedence in this enterprise. I commit to praying while I study and I ask friends to pray for me during this time of preparation. I try to stay focused. I give myself daily tasks as well as weekly goals. I write to-do lists. I trust God to guide me well.

And I take Stanley Hauerwas' advice to heart: put one brick on top of another, one brick per day, and you'll eventually have a house built.

Oh, and my office walls are plastered with summary notes and theses statements, along with St. Augustine and the Doctor Angelicus, bearing daily witness to me about my current vocation.


all i can say is that, clearly, you were made for this -- including the part about typing with your left hand and holding baby girl in the right. Go, D.T.!!!
Quoting the great Tim Gunn, "Make it work." And these days we're resorting to creative solutions for getting the work done, however, whenever possible. I'm positive, though, that Blythe helped clarify a few things while I typed, if I understood her Latin mumblings correctly.
Thomas Cogdell said…
David, I'm getting ready for another season of one-handed work as well! Grace to you.

Hey, I misplaced your email address and wanted to send you this weblink, so I'm being intrusive and putting it in your blog comments, where I know you'll see it. I think you'll enjoy it.

Grace to you, Phaedra & Blythe from Jesus,


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