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My experience taking the Ph.D. Qualifying Exams (Part One)

By María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán

Last May, I took my Ph.D. exams, and I’ve got to say, they were a lot of fun. I know that “fun” would not be the preferred word for most to describe the experience of Ph.D. students taking their qualifying exams, and of course, I faced moments of exhaustion, anxiety, and stress along the way. But what follows is a brief account of some of the steps I took to make the best out of my exams. Most of the things I share and recommend here apply specifically to students in the Rutgers Program in Comparative Literature due to the nature of our exams. However, I think that any Ph.D. student who reads this post can benefit from some aspect of the process and preparation.

I was able to develop some practices that helped me create a healthy rhythm before, during, and after my exams because I had three amazing graduate students—now doctors—giving me advice: Dr. Carolyn Ureña, Dr. Shawn Gonzalez and Dr. Enmanuel Martínez, who also went through the same program as I did. They were incredibly generous and kind to share their experience preparing and taking the exams. In different ways, they helped me to organize myself and reduced some of the anxiety that the exams provoke. Thus, all the steps I took for my exam preparation are no more than a combination of their suggestions and my ideas. I am very grateful for their counsel.

I should begin by saying that I am not a very good exam-taker. Ever since I can remember, I tend to freeze when taking anything that resembles an exam or that relates to the word ‘test.’ My mind goes blank for at least the first ten minutes, and sometimes I need to do some breathing exercises to avoid hyperventilating during any standardized test, or even during a class quiz that I know I’m prepared for. I know that many will relate to this feeling. Exams are anxiety provoking for me, which makes it more important to carefully prepare for them and develop strategies that allow me to succeed, without having a minor mental or emotional breakdown.

First, start reading before your lists are finalized. If you know that there are books or articles that must make it into your exam questions and/or project (or that are required, or that you have discussed with your committee at some point), get a head start on them, because the process of finalizing the list and getting it approved might take longer than you think.  After you have your approved list of texts, which you have agreed upon with your advisor and/or committee, make sure you add up the number of pages each book has (or the length of each film). This will help when you create a timeline of what-to-read-when that fits your weekly schedule. For example, if you teach and go to meetings on Tuesdays, you might not be able to read as much as another day when you don’t have to commute to campus. Therefore, on Tuesdays you may choose to read the three 40-page articles instead of the 500-page novel. You will be able to gauge that schedule division if you know the length of your texts in advance.

On note taking: While reading for exams (or for anything really!), I realized that making marginal notes on pages of the text proved to be unhelpful, especially considering that you have a limited time to write down your exam answers. Shawn’s advice was that I type down a few key quotes from each text on a searchable document (Microsoft Word document was her and my way to go!), as well as my thoughts about them. Creating this document was useful when searching for particular terms and connecting them with the respective authors and their texts.

Another piece of advice that came from both Carolyn and En.Mar. was to write down my thoughts on my readings at the end of each reading day. This helped me make connections not only between the texts but also between my own ideas, and it also generated a record of what I had read. This also proved to be useful given that the more time passed, the more difficult it was to remember what I had read. My notes helped later to recall the main arguments of each text, along with my impressions of them.

As you begin to conclude your readings and the exam date approaches, you will start to see which texts are the most pivotal in developing your ideas, and which others will serve the more extended project of the dissertation but not necessarily be cited directly on the exams (because you cannot cite the dozens of texts you read!). This shorter list will help you to make sure you have those texts at hand during the time of the exams, and that you extend that book reservation at the library!

As I explained before, exams are anxiety provoking for me, so knowing this, I decided early on that I needed to take my exams in a space conducive for writing with the least possible amount of distractions. This “space,” of course, might mean different things for different people. For me, as moving preparations had filled my apartment with boxes for a few weeks, at that point it meant a place outside my home but not too far from it. I also did not want to deal with cooking during my exams, but at the same time, I knew I needed healthy meals to fuel me throughout that weekend. Thus, I knew I needed to find a place where I would be provided with homemade meals and snacks throughout the day, and where I could easily schedule moments of rest.

This place also needed to be spacious enough to allow me to change rooms when I needed to walk away from my desk. I found Easton’s Nook, which met each one of my requirements (and more!). I made a reservation for the weekend of my exams a few months in advance and saved enough to cover the costs. Nadine and Jacquie, the co-owners of Easton’s Nook, are simply wonderful. Nadine’s cooking and company made my stay unforgettable and created a peaceful and motivating environment that helped me push through the mental exhaustion that writing for long periods of time can bring.

If for you that writing space means home, a/the local library or somewhere else, make sure that for that weekend (or week) you do meal prep a few days before, so that cooking takes you the least amount of energy and time. Also, make sure that you have some tea and/or coffee around and some of your favorite snacks for in-between meals. A colleague of mine had different family members bring her homemade meals to her writing space at scheduled times during the day, and they did this for the whole weekend. They would leave the food at her door and walk away!—and return to pick up the containers later, so she didn’t have to deal with cleaning either. If you have family or friends nearby, talk to them and see if you can figure out something similar for your exam period. If these are not possible options for you, many food delivery websites now allow you to schedule your deliveries days in advance from your favorite take-out places, and this could also be a possibility. Otherwise, if you plan your time well, you might be able to take care of all aspects of your food yourself, but just make sure you think through your schedule ahead of time.

[Series to be continued]

A Talk on Translation Studies Initiatives

By Coco Xu

On October 15th and 16th, Dr. Yopie Prins, chair of the Comparative Literature department at the University of Michigan and former president of the American Comparative Literature Association, visited Rutgers and gave two talks on the history and current state of Translation Studies at UM.

Dr. Yopie Prins developed her academic interest in translation studies from her Dutch-English bilingual experiences and studies at the University of Amsterdam, where she was influenced by James S. Holms’s book, The Name and Nature of Translation Studies. As chair of the Comparative Literature department at UM, she is committed to promoting critical translation studies at both the undergraduate and the graduate levels. Dr. Prins believes that translation moves not only between languages, but also between different media, disciplines, and cultures.

Utilizing multilingual resources among students as well as faculty members, UM Comp Lit launched a translation semester to publicize translation on campus in 2012, with $20,000 in funding from the humanities dean’s office. The translation semester featured courses, lectures, as well as other translation-themed activities. During the semester, the department offered an undergraduate course—“22 Ways to Think about Translation”— which encouraged students to think about translation across disciplines and in their daily lives. Events that took place during the semester included a global Arabic poetry reading, a public screening of the film “Speaking in Tongues,” the staging of a performance play called “Translations,” and translation contests. In order to make translation visible not only on campus and within language and literature departments, translation semester reached out beyond literary translation and included topics like machine, scientific, and professional translations. A panel  titled “Words without Borders” invited students to discuss translation for a digital age, and a talk by Josh Estelle, lead developer of the Google Translate project and former graduate from UM, culminated in a translation competition between live translators and Google Translate.

Collaborating with language programs and the Language Resource Center, Comp Lit at UM was able to carry out translation projects including the Language Bank, Translate-a-thon, and community translation services. While language programs brought the Language Bank into language classrooms, the Language Resource Center acted as a matchmaker to connect community organizations with student translation volunteers. The Translate-a-thon, a working group for collaborating translators from all departments across campus to meet weekly at Comp Lit, allowed translators to team up and work together to utilize their unique linguistic expertise. The Translate-a-thon at UM proved to be a great success; drawing both graduate and undergraduate students from different departments and disciplines, it grew from the initial 30–40 to over 200 regular participants in just a few years. It has also reached beyond the immediate community, through engaging international Fulbright scholars via Skype and maintaining a support team on an online forum.

Following the successful translation semester, UM Comp Lit launched a Translation Studies minor in 2014. Open to students from all departments, the TS minor builds translation into the language department curricula and promotes more advanced level work in critical translation studies. Through required capstone projects, it promotes experiential and engaged learning and extends efforts of community outreach. According to TS minors, the program has provided them with not only relevant internship experiences but also a chance to reflect on their translation practices.

Beyond the undergraduate level, UM Comp Lit also extends its initiatives in critical translation studies to the graduate level. Absinthe—a magazine published by the University of Michigan Press—provides the platform where graduate students propose thematic issues and publish their translations and critical reflections on translation. The magazine also gives interested graduate students a chance to develop professional skills in editing and networking with writers and publishers. UM Comp Lit also houses a graduate translation workshop centered around a translation club called “Cannon translation review”. Through these working groups and clubs, UM Comp Lit connects area studies departments to form intra-departmental and extra-departmental collaborations among graduate students through translation studies. Similar to the undergraduate minor in TS, a graduate certificate program in TS is offered. Moving forward, UM Comp Lit is experimenting with a post-doc position in critical translation studies and hopes to collaborate with their law school to develop TS projects on translation in the multilingual midwest and translation in and outside of universities.

Dr. Prins’s talk drew faculty and students from all humanities departments at Rutgers. In the Q&A session, Prof Andrew Parker from the Comp Lit program at Rutgers pointed out that over 54% of the student population here at Rutgers speak a different language at home with their parents/grandparents. Learning from the successful experience of the critical translation studies initiatives at the UM, Rutgers humanities departments is also thinking about ways to address the multilingual backgrounds of our population and interests in critical translation studies here in New Jersey.

Literary and feminist summer in Mexico and Brazil

By Paulina Barrios

Looking back to this summer seems so far away it is hard to think that it only happened a few months ago. The first thing that comes to mind is sunshine and walking around different cities. I started the summer at home, enjoying warm weather and dog-sitting, as I planned out the field research I would do. My general goal this summer was to reconnect with colleagues across feminist movements in Mexico and visit feminist collectives and organizations that use literature in their projects. However, I was also interested in establishing new contacts and learning more about cartoneras and decolonial thought. As a follow up on my class on Spanish American short stories with Prof. Marcy Schwartz, and thanks to her support, I contacted cartonera groups and interviewed them about their work. I wanted to understand if there were any connections between self-narrative and storytelling efforts and self-publishing. Additionally, following a recommendation from Prof. Nelson Maldonado-Torres I applied to the summer school on Decolonial Black Feminism in Bahia, Brazil and was accepted. Although I had initially planned to do research in 8-9 cities in Mexico it slowly became clear that this was overly ambitious considering time and funds. For example, I hadn’t factored in time for transcribing and processing the data, traveling more than two or three times a month would be unrealistic. I also needed time to reach out to people and buy plane tickets that were quickly escalating in price. Therefore, in May I set up my geographic trail for the summer; between June and July I would visit five cities in Mexico, and end the summer at Bahia and Sao Paulo in Brazil.

San Cristobal, Chiapas

I loved my summer work since it gave me the opportunity to watch independent theater productions, learn how to make books out of cardboard, speak with activists, visit new places, and rethink my research project. My time in both countries added new concepts and ideas to my incipient dissertation project such as space, race, self-publishing, decolonial feminisms, and positionality. I was particularly struck by the origins of cartoneras (simply put, these are editorial groups that make cardboard-based artisanal books) and the different aspects that inspire their work: independent editing, responding to editorial monopolies, socioeconomic issues in Latin American countries, the aim to socialize literature that would otherwise be inaccessible to people, bringing literature and craft together, participating in youth-driven projects, etc. In addition to visiting groups in Mexico I was able to speak with Dulcineia Cartonera in Sao Paulo, which is located next to a recycling site. Seeing the different spaces that cartoneras work in (editor’s homes, small bookstores, rooms/offices next to recycling sites, loaned spaces, etc) made me think of the centrality of space in literary production and activism. This relates in part to the physical space of where cartoneras do their work and hold their workshops, for example, but also space as related to performance and theater.

Space also came up when I spoke to theater companies or LBTQ collectives and organizations that use theater as part of their creative and activist work. In some cases these groups choose to use public spaces and the street. In others, part of their activism involves having a space of their own for their and others’ performances and theater productions. Hence, this experience led me to rethink the concept of space, and the practical elements attached to having a physical space for activist groups. In some cases, groups do believe that having a physical space benefits their work, and in others they see their mobility as a positive aspect. Not only this, but many groups spoke about the threat of shrinking space for both cultural projects (specifically in the case of Guadalajara) and feminist or human rights activist work. Thus, space arose as both an issue and an opportunity regarding physical space and the concept of space in a less tangible fashion.

The final element of my summer, the decolonial feminism school, was a crucial addition to my research project’s theoretical framework. Held from August 6-10 in Cachoeira, Bahia (Brazil), the Decolonial Black Feminism Summer School is described on their website as “an initiative exploring Black Feminist Thought from a Trans-American perspective”. They further aim to generate a regional discussion surrounding black feminisms that have risen out of the continent, reframing intersectionality around race and inequality, as well as adding decolonial analyses of capitalism and patriarchy. The sessions focused on black feminist thought in the United States taught by Prof. Kimberle Crenshaw, Brazilian black feminist history taught by Prof. Angela Figueroa, and Latin American decolonial feminisms taught by Prof. Karina Ochoa. In addition to the academic training, the personal exchanges between participants was a wonderful experience, and I had the opportunity to meet fellow graduate students, activists, and professors. The school also included afternoon or evening walks throughout Cachoeira, meeting

Memorial das Baianas in Salvador, Bahía

local cultural and activist groups, as well as a samba presentation-invitation to participate. The spiritual element of the exchanges and learning is difficult to put into words but made this into one of the most thought-provoking experiences of my life.

The funds granted by the Program in Comparative Literature, the Center for Latin American Studies, and the Off-Campus Dissertation Development Award were crucial for my work in Mexico and my participation in the summer school in Bahia. After this summer I was left with many questions, new ideas, and a conviction that academy and activism should be in constant communication and that we need more ‘South-South’ exchanges. My summer work has already extended into my second year under the PhD program in Comparative Literature, inspiring many of my classes and triggering conversations around my future dissertation project. In the future I hope to maintain a constant communication with decolonial and black feminisms, further my understanding and use of ‘space,’ as well as continue to put Brazil and Mexico into conversation.