Method to the madness? (Part 2)

Another bleary-eyed morning, another post about my process of exam list crafting.  Last time, I talked about exams as a moment of academic identity formation that has to be balanced with a realistic sense of your options in terms of committee members.  This time, let’s get down to the nuts-and-bolts of actually writing titles on a list.  Read on to hear my own experience of that.

First I needed to get the actual field proposals down.  I knew I had a solid mix of theoretical knowledge, media studies/historical expertise, and an interest in novel approaches and objects within Japan studies on my committee, as well as of course each member’s specific project specializations.  My explorations of other departments and methodologies through my coursework had convinced me that media studies is really the methodological paradigm where I see myself most squarely planted.  And for the last year and a half, or so, I’ve been saying that my project is one that tackles technology and embodiment in Japanese sci-fi.  The literature on Japanese sci-fi, specifically, is practically non-existent, however.  In retrospect, that’s probably a good thing: if there were already that much of a field established, there might not be enough room for me to do the project I want to do, since it might have already been done.  Since a seminar I took last year, I’ve been tuning in to this idea of sci-fi as “genre fiction,” opposed in scholarship and popular criticism to “pure literature,” and so that framing came to mind as my “Genre Fiction and Japan’s 20th Century” list.  The embodiment stuff narrowed itself down pretty naturally, in that I’ve always been trying to get at embodiment in a posthuman sense.  And finally, that left me with Media Studies and Japan, my methodology-inclined list.

Written down in a single paragraph like that makes the process seem quick and natural, but it wasn’t.  This was a series of decisions that took me just about an entire academic year, including chasing down some leads (for committee members, for list ideas) that ended up going nowhere.  For the longest time, for example, I was trying to pull together a “sci-fi studies” list, but I realized there just wasn’t anyone that would be able to do that list with me, so I had to give up on it with the consolatory notion that I’ll probably read all that scholarship anyway.  That’s another realization that I wish I’d made earlier: you don’t need to do ALL the reading relevant to your specific sub-field right off the bat.  If you get close on the fields that you view as relevant to your work, the specialist stuff that’s directly relevant to your project will still come up as you do the research.

So I had the fields.  Now what?  Now I needed to figure out how I was going to organize them.  In meetings with my committee members, the generally agreed-upon strategy was to split the field into chunks organized around questions.  “(How) Does Japan matter to media studies?” for example, or, “What is a genre?”  This step I actually found to be pretty easy and even cathartic.  I just sat down and asked myself what I wanted to know about these fields, and (not unlike these word-vomit posts) the questions came quickly.  I should note that I think this was really helped by going to a bunch of workshops and conferences my first couple of years to see the kinds of questions that get asked of dissertation chapters and of fields more broadly.  Lots of hand-wringing discussions about “what is East Asian studies” and “are we all actually racist fascists without knowing it” had helped me tune in to the kinds of broad questions (usually unanswerable) that could nevertheless help me identify and deconstruct the basic assumptions of a field and think about how those were relevant or not to me.

Next, I dug into my Zotero.  This is an unexpected use for the bibliography-management software.  It had records of all the readings I’d been doing for coursework, including a slew of books about which I’d completely forgotten.  Probably a solid third of my lists were books I pulled from past reading.  After I’d thrown all of those into their most relevant sub-categories, I reached out to my committee members for advice.  My impression is that having the “first draft” is important to help the members see where one is trying to take the lists, which helps them give better suggestions.  And they did.  The titles they suggested comprised probably another third of the lists.  After that, I started flipping through bibliographies in the books I had so far and adding whatever seemed relevant to compose the final third of each list.

I know some people who have come up with hundreds of titles for their lists, and had a list construction process that was much more akin to hacking away undergrowth and pruning an unruly tree into an attractive and legible topiary.  If I had to guess, I would say people doing this are largely of a different academic background than I am (i.e. I went from a BA to a PhD without doing an MA in between, and taking almost no time off after graduation during which I could read up on these things on my own).  So for me, it was definitely more an additive process than the other way around (subtractive?).  In total, each of my lists is clocking in at around 30 items a piece.  I should also note that my lists are still very much open to revision, and indeed, I just added something the other day on the recommendation of a committee member.

So that’s about it.  As for the actual process of reading the stuff, well…. you can see how that’s going.  I hope this was useful for anyone out there starting to think about their own exams!  Leave a comment if it did, or if you have anything else you want to hear about with this whole crazy thing!


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