Comps! Comps! Comps, Comps, Comps!

Comprehensive exams are just around the corner. Now, I can try to make this a less painful process by repeatedly reading the title of this post like this:

Or, I can figure out the best way to get organized, study effectively, and give myself enough time to prepare. (In reality, I’m probably going to do both. Just sayin’.)

The first step in the process is putting together everything I have read for each of my fields (primary field is Southern History, second and third fields are 19th Century U.S. and Latin American History.) For that, I don’t have helpful advice so much as “Oh, I’m glad I did that,” but who knows, it might help someone. First, starting my first year of undergrad, I began organizing each of my classes, most importantly the syllabus for each of my classes, into folders by class, semester, and year. I have continued this into grad school, so now I have a way of going back and recalling every book applicable to each of my fields that I have had to read for class up to this point. Many of these books I own (and I’ll get to those in a moment) but for the ones I was too poor/cheap to buy, or have lost in the process of moving from Virginia to New Jersey to Texas, at least it’s a record.

At the start of graduate school 2 years ago, I took the time to enter all (see: most) of the books I own into my Library Thing account. If you use Library Thing already, you already know how fantastic it is. If you don’t, Library Thing allows you to look up any book you own through a simple search (title or author usually gets you there), and then add it to your library with all of the Library of Congress information attached. After doing that, I added tags to all the books in my library to organize them by subject matter, with special attention paid to how they might fit in to my three fields. (On a Library Thing note unrelated to comps, I also used the LOC data to print call number labels for all of my books, while my library is still a manageable size. Is this a completely insane thing to do? Absolutely. But I’ve helped professors unpack their offices when they don’t have an organizational system other than alphabetical by author, and it’s not fun.)

While Library Thing has been/will be immensely helpful in putting together my lists, using a web-based interface for the actual note taking and study process probably isn’t the most effective way to do things. I started using Evernote for my most recent research project, and it seems to be a nice way to organize notes quickly and effectively. Using Evernote I will be able to write down basic summaries of the argument of each book on my lists, how they fit in with the historiography, and then include tags (trying to be more systematic and robust than I have been for my Library Thing) to help study which books are in conversation with one another. (Cameron Blevins has a two great posts on “Surviving Quals” here, and here. I’m looking ahead to my exams, while he is looking back, but those posts were helpful in thinking through some of the issues I might have. He also has an awesome post about what he did with all those book summaries after passing exams.)

I’m hoping that already having a good chunk of my library organized, and using Evernote to help organize my book summaries will help me prepare for comps more quickly and effectively than I could with just pen and paper, or even with just basic word documents. With that plan, and a solid soundtrack, I hope to be done with this in early August, so I can start thinking about my trip to Colombia.

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