The Messages We Send

How to Read My Comments on Your Paper Drafts:

Every once in a while I read about some educational practice that makes such perfect sense I can can’t help but wonder why everyone isn’t doing it. Steve Greenlaw periodically directs posts in his blog specifically to his students. In a recent post he addresses the purpose of the writing students are doing in his freshman seminar.

“Writing is the tool most scholars use to think about ideas. You don’t write when you have your ideas figured out; rather, you write to figure out what you think. Writing, revising and rewriting is what scholars do. Completing the first draft of a paper is the beginning of your thinking; it shouldn’t be the end.”

When I read drafts, I try to read them as I would a colleague’s paper who is asking for help in improving their work. What that means is I’m not pointing out what’s “wrong” with the paper. Rather, I’m making suggestions about what isn’t clear to the reader, or what I think might make the paper stronger.

I had to contrast Steve’s message to his students with the one we’re sending to our graduate students. We’re in the midst of the comps season, and my colleagues and I are dutifully preparing questions for the two days of exams that will determine whether the students that we’ve spent the last couple of years (or more) working and learning with should be allowed to begin their dissertations. As I look at the fascinating questions my colleagues have prepared, two thoughts immediately pop into my mind.

First, I thank the design of the universe that I’m not being expected to answer them. The thought of having to enter a room with a computer and no notes and synthesize two years of thinking, reading and writing about leadership or planning or policy–much less all of them together–would be terrifying. (It might be interesting if we had a qualifying exam for those who are reading the comps–just a half-day in which we are expected to synthesize all the research in our fields since we took our last closed-book comprehensive exam. It might make it even harder to find readers than it is now.)

The second thought is to try to find some rational reason for subjecting students to this experience. Once they’ve jumped through this hoop, is there any professional situation where they would be expected to do this again? Comps were the most worthless step in my own doctorate–largely because the key research in the field suggested that the only thing timed exams measured was the the ability to take timed examinations.

As I understand Steve’s message to his students, he’s telling them that it’s worth learning the conversation that shapes professional writing because it will be at the core of their education. I can’t help but wonder what message our graduate students are getting from us through the comps requirement.

2 thoughts on “The Messages We Send”

  1. Gene,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on comps. For others who do not know, Gene is on my committee so I have particular interest in his ideas on this subject. I also have the distinction of having not passed written comps one year ago (it sounds so much better that failure).

    Since we only have two attempts at comps, I have not worked up the courage to tackle it again but am scheduled for January. I was unprepared due to two eye surgeries over the prior year, which kept me out of the literature. I basically took a year off from “synthesizing” the material.

    In addition, I have a disability (essential tremor-read about it here: which makes it extremely difficult to write – or type- especially under stress. Before taking comps last year, I attempted to take the shakes out of the equation by having a glass of wine about 30 minutes ahead (alcohol hits the same place in the brain as the tremor and thus helps to control it). Well, if the wine helped, I’m glad I drank it – without it, I probably could not have walked.

    Shortly after “not passing” comps, I consulted a tremor specialist and obtained a prescription for a beta blocker that helps control the tremors. It works well – except for the side effects (depression and lethargy). At this point, I only take it when I will be in a social situation where it could be a problem. I’m still not sure what to do when comps time comes. But now, it is a certified disability that will at least gain me some additional time to try to write.

    Sorry about the lengthy personal story but it provides some context. You see, I am in support of Gene’s thoughts about the uselessness of comps (for those of you in higher ed, we know it serves a “gatekeeping” function, don’t we?). However, in order to change this system (especially at W&M) it would require a “paradigm shift” (see, I do remember something from Dr. VanTassel-Baska’s Cross Disciplinary class – thanks to Kuhn). That shift is not likely soon so just bone up and write your heart out – hoping for the best.

    For those of you taking comps at W&M the next two days – All the Best!

  2. Since the PhD represents the admission (or investiture, if you will) into the priesthood of knowledge, there is little wonder that this arcane practice is maintained, from generation to generation. It is an initiation rite, a rite of passage that has been endured by the elders of the priesthood for generations. It is on this merit alone that its continuation is justified in an age in which information is literally at the fingertips, and transdisciplinarity is the order of the day.

    I am thankful that in our department, the comprehensive requirement comprises the literature review for our thesis, and it is deemed passed when our committee (and especially supervisor) agrees that the appropriate ground has been covered to contextualize the later research.

    Yes, in our department, we have finally reached the Enlightenment.

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