Method to the madness? (Part 1)

After a late evening playing Betrayal at House on the Hill, I’m not quite awake enough yet to get to work, so what better time to start working on a stream-of-consciousness post about assembling my lists?  Hopefully this will be useful to any of you trying to put together your own exam lists, or just anyone thinking about what a “field” means.  Read more below.

When I started grad school, I kind of assumed there was a standard process by which you would arrive at your field exam lists.  All the students I talked to that had already finished their exams said the same things about them: you read a shit-ton of books, and then you answer a couple of questions about them.  The first step is filled with sleep-deprived, mildly panicked nights as you try to get all the books read in time, and the latter is filled with anxiety about the stakes of the questions you’re answering (pass or leave!), but then it’s over, and you enter the “sullen and cynical” stage of ABD.

Turns out that’s not the case at all.  Well, the “read a ton and then write some answers and panic the whole time” thing is still the case, but the part BEFORE that.  Nobody ever talked about the part where you actually assemble the lists that catalogue your doom.  A friend asked me an interesting question the other night: “When you’re putting your lists together, are they mostly things you want to teach, or things you want to research?”  I’d never thought of it like that.  It seems like there are about as many methods to making lists as there are people making them, so to a certain extent, this post can just be summed up as “follow your heart”.  But that wouldn’t amount to 500 words, so here we are.

For me, creating exam lists has been a process of identity formation.  To what fields do I want to make a contribution with my work?  Where do I see myself aligned with pre-existing scholarship?  Where does scholarship on my topic actually exist in the first place?  In large part, this doubled as a way of making my dissertation more concrete (that endless process) by drawing some lines around it.  Was I going to do an anthropological study of SF fandom?  Was I going to do a historical examination of the formation of SF in Japan?  I’d tried on a few different hats through seminar papers, but it was time to make a decision.

This decision, though, also needed to be calibrated with the people available to work with me here.  I think, in its own way, this was also helpful.  It was an exercise in inter-personal consciousness, remembering who’s working on what, and who would be good to work with on any given topic.  That kind of network consciousness, I think, is something that becomes salient as you’re trying to put together a conference, publish an edited volume, or put together a multi-disciplinary/collaborative research project.  It meant compromise for me.  There were people I would have liked to work with who were no longer an option for various reasons, and so I needed to think in realistic terms about what I could do here, and with whom.  It actually took a long time (longer than I should have taken, probably), but I finally got my committee settled around late July of this year.

So that’s the interpersonal half of list formation.  I think I’m going to cut this post off here (I’ve woken up a bit more, and I should get back to work), but look forward to Part 2, where I’ll talk about how I actually worked with these people to get some book titles on a piece of paper.  I’ll touch on the collaborative process of list-formation, as well as how I went about doing some of it on my own.


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