Newsletter Issue:
Spring 2012

Examining the Orals

by Emily Putnam

The experience of the oral exams began months before stepping foot in the room at Brown. In preparation for this major event, I worked diligently with my study group as we reviewed three years of coursework at IDSVA. As we combed through the texts, posed potential questions to each other, and wove together an intertextual interpretation, I discovered new insights into the books and theories that I already thought were familiar. I felt truly engaged with this material as I attempted to delineate my position in this conversation. This study period was one of my most fulfilling and enriching experiences as a student.

Actually taking the oral exams is simultaneously an exercise in celebration and humility. As I engaged in conversation with the faculty that day, I was able to display the array of knowledge and participate in complex, thought provoking dialogue. At the same time, the limits of my understanding were revealed, reminding me that I still have room to grow. The discomforts I experienced during the exam were due to my anxiety surrounding the outcome. Even though the conversation was pleasant, I could not forget that I was being judged. My recommendation to future students: take some time to relax before the exam. Do yoga, meditate, or do whatever you can to put your mind and body at ease. It is important to remain in a position of acceptance, since this allows you to be open to suggestions and constructive criticism. Discomfort is also an inevitable consequence of transitioning from the phase of being a consumer of knowledge to a producer. Passing the oral exams is a great accomplishment, but it is just one step in the long process of doctoral work.

I left the room that day in a state of elation, exhaustion, and shock.  In commemoration of the experience, I got a tattoo that reads “sous rature.” The Derridean phrase translates to “under erasure” and functions as a reminder that the process is not over yet. Rather, I have entered a new phase in my research where I will be incessantly revising, editing, going over, and stepping back in order to move forward. Nothing is final, only inadequate but necessary.

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