My strategy for comps: Part 2

Where the magic happened.

I passed today.

The committee members shook my hand and said: keep going. Sujin Pak complimented me on my written exams. Jeremy Begbie took me out to coffee afterward to celebrate and kindly engaged me in follow-up conversation. Lester Ruth generously told me I'd performed excellently, while Sam Wells said something to me that I'll hold onto for a while.

He said that I was engaged in two sorts of exercises in my oral defense today. One exercise involved learning how to think clearly "on my feet" and the other exercise involved learning what it meant to join the guild of theologians. I'm grateful to my committee.

I'm lucky to have a friendly committee.

One thing I'll say, though, is this: it's astounding--astoundingly nefarious--how isolated and isolating academic experience can be. I'm thankful that God has provided me keen friendships here (Bo, Tanner, Brian, Ken, for starters), but it doesn't cease to surprise me how much of a doctoral program is something "you're supposed to figure out on your own."

Like grading practices. Like teaching. Like good teaching. Like studying for comprehensive exams. Like taking comprehensive exams. Like defending comprehensive exams.

If it strokes your ego to "do it yourself," without anybody's help, knock yourself out. I have no wish to live in that kind of niggardly world. The "this is the way it's always been" argument makes me yawn. It is such an utterly boring way to look at education. Surely a Christian imagination can do better than that.

So to do what I can to rectify a bad deal, let me offer a few things I've learned through my recent experience. If they're helpful to you, great, if not, no worries, I'm sure you'll find your way.

One, choose not to be alone. Choose, that is, to ask for help from anybody and from anywhere. Don't be too proud to ask for help or to admit that you don't know something.

Two, make a strategy.  As I mentioned in my first post, I found it helpful to identify 10 theses per subject matter that I'd be questioned on. This accomplished two goals. One, it forced me to clarify what I thought about the subject. Instead of simply rehearsing what others thought--describing, distilling, analyzing, synthesizing, etc--I could defend what I believed was at stake in the discipline. Two, it didn't matter what questions I'd be asked, I could marshal my ten theses in support of a cogent answer.

And what I've found is this: cogency always lies downstream of coherency. If you've made coherent sense of the data for which you're responsible, you'll be able to mount a cogent answer. In principle, at least.

Three, set a timetable for your preparation. If I'd had the time, I would have set aside one month per area that I'd be tested in.

Four, per my 10 theses strategy, I prepared three documents. In one document I stuffed everything I knew or was supposed to know about the subject. This served as my master document. This served, I eventually realized, as a proto-syllabus for future courses I'd teach. In another document I summarized the large document down to 4-6 pages. This served as my abridged document. And in a third document I wrote out only the ten theses.

For example, here are the 10 theses for my pneumatology exam:

1. The Spirit is the Lord, not an adjectival quality of God. 
2. The Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. 
3. The Spirit’s relationship to Christ is one of interdependence and mutual subordination.
4. The Spirit is the Giver of Life, the animator and re-creator of all things.
5. The Spirit particularizes all things in creation, while freeing them to develop in novel ways.
6. While Christ institutes the church, the Spirit is the one who constitutes it.
7. The Spirit unites persons without merging them, uniting the like and unlike.
8. The Holy Spirit has spoken through the prophets.
9. The Spirit prays in us and for us, and with the F and S is worshiped and glorified. 
10. The Spirit perfects creation by bringing all things back into fellowship with the Father and Son.

In these ten theses I identify everything I believe and confess with respect to the third person of the Trinity. I wrote 30 pages of single-space material to support these ten assertions.

The 6-page abridged document distilled the most salient points and quotes under each thesis, and I committed all six pages to memory.

Here's the caveat: I took my exam questions blind. Others in my program know their questions in advance. I didn't. Jeremy wanted me to think on my feet, and that's why I needed a way to synthesize the landscape of pneumatological studies (per my secondary concentration) and to get a provisional sense of where I landed in the mix. I needed to be clear about the pressure points in the field, the significant lines of thought, the substantial traditions of interpretation, the methodological patterns, the linguistic challenges, the major points of dispute viz the minor ones.

My job was not to become master of the discipline; my job was to become a skillful tour guide. Mastery would come later.

Five, enjoy the process. Breathe, relax, enjoy. Remember that you get to do this. Hundreds, perhaps thousands upon thousands of Christians around the globe would covet the opportunity to engage in the kind of studies you are privileged to assume. I'll say it again: we get to study.

Six, find a suitable place to ingest and memorize the material a week before your exam. By suitable I mean whatever environment makes you feel most peaceful. For me it was the Duke Gardens. The morning of each exam found me wandering around the flowerbeds, committing quotes from Barth, Maritain, Athanasius, Zizioulas, Witvliet, Kavanagh, Congar and St. Paul to memory. My memory capacities are not as strong as others, so I have to work very hard to keep it all upstairs, but sitting next to azaleas and Asiatic magnolias definitely helped.

Seventh, find somebody who would be willing to quiz you. There's nothing like a friend who is willing to ask you all the hard questions before you take the exam. I didn't have this so I settled for talking out loud to myself. A public risk, no doubt, but it helped.

Eighth, be confident that if you've gotten this far without your professors throwing any red flags in your general direction, you're doing ok.

Ninth, plan a routine for each exam session in advance. That is, decide in advance what will help you enjoy the experience and stay focused for the entirety of the time. Here was my routine:

1. Take all exams at 10 AM when I'm sharpest mentally.
2. Visit the restroom right before the exam.
3. Take a fresh coffee and a big water bottle with me.
4. Take nuts to chew on throughout. They're good brain food.
5. Take lunch just in case I get nippy.
6. Write on white board a message that will keep me in good spirits. Usually it was something like "You're gonna kill it" or "Throw down, brother, throw down."
7. Wear favorite baseball cap.
8. Before writing, drop down and do twenty push-ups and twenty sit-ups. Keep the blood flowin', dawg.
9. Say a prayer.
10. Open document.

Tenth, before reading my exam questions, I wrote out my ten theses, so I could keep clear what I wanted to argue no matter what was asked.

Eleventh, read exam questions carefully and instinctively know which ones you're going to answer. Then decide which ones you will in fact answer. Play to your strong suit. If you're asked to write either one question the entire time or to split the time by answering two questions, choose to answer one. You have more than enough material to answer one question in 3 hours and you get more of a chance to build an argument. If you answer two, you might find yourself distracted by the other question that awaits or stressed by time. That's my subjective opinion. I wrote two exams that way. With my primary concentration, I answered three questions, because I had no other option.

Twelfth, don't forget to mount an argument. Don't write an exposition. Argue something. To that end, type up a quick outline at the top of the page that you'll refer to as you write like a batman out of hell. Stick with your outline until the outline begs to be amended. Don't free-flow. That'll be too dangerous. You're more likely to meander and succumb to regurgitating tendencies, which make for poor essays.

Thirteen, relax and remind yourself that you get to do this. Breathe. Smile. Tell yourself a 30-second joke. Look up at that whiteboard and agree with yourself wholeheartedly. You are in fact going to kill this exam.

Fourteenth, keep your eye on the clock. Try to keep your writing on pace. Pay attention to the argument you outlined above.

Fifteenth, get out of your chair at hour intervals. Do a quick 15-second stretch. Keep the oxygen flowing.

Sixteenth, keep chewing on those walnuts, almonds, pecans and dark chocolate-covered peanuts.

Seventeenth, stop writing 15 minutes before the end. Don't do what I did--write till the very last second. I ran out of time to review what I'd written, except to glance hyperfast at my introductions and conclusions. After I'd been sent a copy of my exam by email, I discovered a few typos that bugged the crap out of me. I also found a few soft logical corners and a handful of quantum leaps in my argument. Grrr.

Eighteenth, as you prepare for your oral defense, review your notes but review them in a fun place. Don't be serious and heavy. You've done plenty of that already. Keep yourself light-hearted. Remember: relaxed people usually do better than anally retentive people, all things being equal. Look for places in your essays where you argued poorly or failed to include material that should have been present.

Nineteenth, as you wait outside the room for your committee members to call you in, don't do what I did: sneak peeks at your notes. Don't do that. That increases stress because you're thinking only about all the bad things that could happen: what you don't know, what you won't remember, that you'll embarrass yourself in front of them, that you coulda, shoulda, maybe done this or that.

Instead, relax. And by that I don't mean to tell yourself to relax. Rather imagine the version of yourself that is relaxed and be that person. Me, I imagined myself at the beginning of a 10k race, full of nervous energy but perfectly relaxed and excited for the race to begin.

Twentieth, take each question as they come. Don't fret in advance of things they haven't asked. Answer in a measured way, take your time if need be, jot down notes if that helps, and take the binary approach: on the one hand, on the other. Honest answers often involve considerations of two sides of an argument. Don't be afraid to say "I don't know" or "I'm still thinking that issue over." I answered two questions that way. But don't stay with "I don't know." Show them that you know where things might go or should go down a certain line of thinking. Relax, smile, don't be obsequious, look people in the eye, ask for clarifications, be humble, be confident, and at the end of the time thank them warmly.

Then go celebrate. Seriously. Have a plan in place to live it up. Go get an adult beverage. Go to a movie. Go to a splish and splash if it's summer or to a mountain hideaway if it's winter. Treat yourself to something fun and look for ways to celebrate your accomplishment with people that care for you. I went out for a coffee with Jeremy after the oral defense. Phaedra and Blythe came up to campus after my third exam. And last week I went out with the Reformed posse for beers and pizza at Fullsteam Brewery, followed by Scotch, homemade flan, Mexican coffee and cigars shared around a firepit at home. It was perfect.

I'm taking a little break now. Next week I'll start work on two journal articles. Then it's dissertation proposal. For now, though, I'm enjoying the sun and easy laughter.

And, remember, taking your comprehensive exams is no worse than lying down with lions.


Andy Rowell said…
Agreed. Well said. Good job!
Thanks, Andy. I've learned a lot from you along the way.
Josh S. said…
Congrats! Any chance you'd share your 10 theses on Liturgical Worship? From memory of course... :)
Josh, my plan is to post the ten theses on liturgical theology in several posts. So stay tuned. And thanks for the congrats!

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