Tag Archives: prep

The Road to Comps Part 1: 19th Century Natural History in Comparative Perspective

Background Sources

That is the subheading for this seemingly insurmountable portion of the foothills of the mountain that is comps prep. Nothing about this is going to happen in even a remotely timely manner. In fact, you never know just how many things can happen to get in the way of actually finishing a book. This can range from the mundane–neighbor’s son’s dogs jumping the fence and wanting to hang out in our yard–to the earth shaking–literally a 5.6 earthquake at 7 a.m. so you can spend the morning looking for cracks in your drywall and mortar. Launching of Modern American Science

In and around that you have a stack of four or five books that average 400 pages and a couple of articles that you read online first to make it feel like you are making headway. This is the comps equivalent of putting “make a to-do list” on your to-do list so you can cross it off. You will grow to love articles mostly because they are (for the most part) succinct pieces of text that aren’t buried in statistical analysis of organizational member numbers and/or reinforced again and and again every time someone’s name is mentioned.

Background sources are just that. Everything in the background. Think of it as the base neutral painting on a canvass so your detailed painting doesn’t get absorbed. You may also think of it as being blown back out of the whirlpool that was your master’s work. The most established metaphor for graduate school is “drinking from a fire hose.” One of my mentor professors pitched it as parachuting into a sea of information and you swim around in as much general knowledge as you can as you head towards something more directed. To add to this, as you are swimming you end up in the Straits of Messina staring in the face of Charybdis.


At the point you finish your thesis you are swallowed, only to have Chary spit you back out into the great sea of all the things you didn’t know. It is the intellectual equivalent of running “horses” at basketball practice. To get through it, you have to get to it. Sort of like the ending of the original Magnificent Seven or, to keep with our ocean theme, this:

You’ll see this sections readings at the end of this post, but for now I am going to wax nostalgic on their collective points. I originally intended to work through each work systematically, but this isn’t going to be a collection of reviews (you can get plenty of those on JSTOR) or a set of notes for a reading comprehension exam. This, I think, is the largest hangup for many of us: the name. Comprehensive exams aren’t comprehensive in the fact that you are going to test your reading comprehension in the tradition sense of recounting what schools someone attended in Germany before trying to build the Dudley observatory, or the grandeur of the academic genealogy that has some how passed down with more than a slight attachment to politics. There is no way that you can remember details, notes or otherwise, in any useful manner from tens of thousands of pages of text, so you have to go with what you know, trust that your committee is preparing you well, and start packing new and useful things around those that you already know.

For the background stuff, that is fairly easy. There were only two things in this section that I was unfamiliar with. One being Robert Burce’s Pulitzer prize winning 1988 work on The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846-1876, and the most recent (2016) Bolton et al. “Science in Early America: Print Culture and the Sciences of Territoriality.”

This is pretty much how comps works: names, dates, nonsense about publishing, black magic, cults, yeah, I feel ya, Donnie.

The easiest way to explain the nature of background reading is driving out to meet a new friend only to find that several other people you know live on their street. Bruce should be the handbook for anyone studying American History of Science in the 19th century. It can also serve as a playbook for anyone wanting to understand scientific enterprise in the 20th and 21st centuries. There are many instances that modern scientific organizations are repeating many of the errors that plagued our Early Republic and Jacksonian brothers.

It all boils down to the European model. What can be gleaned from the organization and approach to science from the schools of Europe, and Europe in this sense means Germany, France, and the UK. America students made up for the lack of graduate training by studying with some of the most famous names in the History of Science before returning to the U.S. to set up smaller versions of the laboratories where they worked in Berlin, Paris, and Edinburgh. Scientific correspondence takes off during this period and many American scientists earn their clout from their relationships with those famous Europeans.

Victorian Popularizers of Science

Printing releases a flood of information, misinformation, religious fervor, and new nationalism throughout all literate society. Pamphlets, proceedings from scientific societies, handbills, and books circulated more widely than ever before and offered a glimpse into the structure of science. This is especially true for the newspapers in the United States. Even the popularizers and New Audiences in and around London were no match for the volume and distribution of the science of the press in American in the 1830s/40s. Many prominent British travelers remarked on the amount of newspapers being read across the Atlantic, even working class men were seen to have newspapers.

Such information required vetting from those in the know according to people like Thomas Huxley who fought against non scientists writing about science. Many today fall under this Huxley flock to the detriment of their own scientific communication efforts. In the end Huxley adopted the very methods, modes, and vocabularies of those he derided. The public wanted to know science, but they wanted it delivered in a way that wasn’t dry, trite, or boring. This also leads to come of the great “classics” in the History of Science coming out with staying power: things like Lyell’s Principles of Geology and the (then) anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. 

Victorian Sensation

Vestiges is brilliant. Not so much for what it says, but for the fact that it was anonymous. If no one wrote it then anyone could have. It turned into a sort of Dread Pirate Roberts. Depending on the audience, the author could have been a middle class partisan, or a mechanic distrustful of the new systems of industry. Because no one knew who wrote it, it was not immediately evident who the book was for. This is it’s greatest legacy, and it would be a thing to see if people weren’t allowed to know who wrote something until after they had read it. Works would have to be weighed on merit, logic, and evidence instead of dismissed (or lauded) out of hand because of its author.

This period, moreso than others I think, really set the stage for “modern” thinking. In more than just name, as Bruce highlights ad nauseum, but because these are the roots of the legacy of universities like Yale, Harvard, UPENN, and a few others. The essays in Cultures of Natural History reveal how the relationship with natural history shaped the way we think about things today. This isn’t necessarily the royal we, as someone coming from a scientific background in geology and paleontology I have really seen several unbroken legacies in both Cultures of Natural History and The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846-1876. 

Cultures of Natural History

Do I know any more about the background of 19th Century Natural History than I did when I started?  I could pinpoint one or two “facts” that I didn’t know, like where Joseph Henry worked in Michigan, or who were members of the Lazzaroni and when. One of the things about a year of preparation for multi-hour tests is that won’t be the question. The questions (I think) will be arranged to expose the holes that I will likely still have after finishing 123 books on a list. Hopefully it bodes well that a lot of the larger themes in these books–amateurism, professionalism, development of disciplines, scientific societies and organizations, new American exploration expeditions with scientists on board, are all things that I have written about before.

I think the best thing that comes out of the background reading (aside from Bruce’s work most likely being my bible for dissertation work–less his copious statistical analysis of the Dictionary of American Biography) is that James Secord really sums up preparation for comps when talking about the reading of Vestiges: 

“Every act of reading is an act of forgetting: the experience
reading is a palimpsest, in which each text partially covers
those that came before”  

Readings for this section (articles linked where available)

Bruce, Robert. The Launching of American Science, 1846-1876 (Cornell U Pr, 1988)

Jardine, N., et al Cultures of Natural History

Lightman, Bernard. Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Pandora, Katherine. “Popular Science in National & Transnational Perspective: Suggestions from the American Context,” Isis, 2009, 100:346-358.

Secord, James. Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History
of Creation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Bolton, Conevery Valencius, David Spanagel, Emily Pawley, Sara Stidstone Gronim, and Paul Lucier, “Science in Early America: Print Culture and the Sciences of Territoriality,” Journal of the Early Republic, 2016, 36: 73-123

The Road to Comps Part 0.5 Getting Started


If you somehow stumble onto this series while working on your own projects, or, more likely, procrastinating on you own project, remember one important thing: Things will get in the way.

The first casualty of war is the battle plan. That being said, it is always good to have a plan for when it does. You won’t be able to plan for everything, no matter how hard you try, and everyone’s plan will be different, just like everyone’s preparation is different.

Some people working through graduate school have kids, and they, like Dr. Malcolm, know anything can and does happen. Others have lives they built before going (or returning) to graduate school, this means existing bills, possibly owning a home with a gazillion projects just waiting to fall through the attic. Still others are literally working through graduate school–at the mall, at a restaurant, or a hardware store (no an exhaustive list). Some of those work hours are in addition to any hours they have managed to snag as a teaching of research assistant. This is where time and stress management are key. Especially time management. If you have poor time management your stress management better be stellar.

Even getting started won’t go as you plan. I have been working on the “soft opening” of my comps plan for weeks.  I started earlier this year reading books I knew were going to be on the finished list. Setting out times for reading, and note taking, and even scheduling in time to write the post reviews for the readings I did that week. I read quickly and my reading comprehension has always been above average but reading for comps is not reading for a comprehension test per se. There is a lot more going on in the field than that so you have to spend more time with the content and the notes and the people who are writing the sources you (and your committee–especially your committee) have selected.


After finishing the McNair Scholars program I worked as the Gradate Mentor for two years and I have worked with McNair Scholars to help them work on their time management skills. Working at the OU Grad College we brought in speakers to lead workshops on “turbo-charging your writing” (Hugh Kearns and his IThinkWell programs also tackle Positive Procrastination and Imposter Syndrome if you feel under the yoke of either or both).  But I want to stress to a larger audience that there is no one size fits all approach. You will have to experiment and see which works for you, and you should do it before you want to get started. Don’t used time management practice to procrastinate from your reading or other project.

That being said, and still having two sources to finish before a content post I wanted to share that with a larger audience here, and try and maintain some form of scheduling with posts. This may or may not help, but as I have worked with first generation graduate students (and, really, undergrads too) I have found this more common among us: how do you make reading a priority when it was what you did in your free time?

A lot of people you know “love to read.” They read books, comics, newspapers, the backs of cereal boxes, fiction, non-fiction, historical fiction, plays, recipes, etc. etc. but most of them work reading into their “spare” time: after work, between classes, even at the gym. For me, that has been the hardest part of getting into a rhythm of reading for hours when I get back to the house from work. You have to see reading for comps *as* work. I am a couple weeks into working on my “Schedule” and there is still a nagging feeling deep in my brain that I should be doing something important like mowing the grass. That voice is getting quieter, although it is there when I do other things too.  You’ve got to have discipline, or plan on developing it extremely quickly under duress.

Playing video games is sort of the same for me. I have a handful, and grew up in the Nintendo age, but again it was one of those after school, after feeding all our animals (horses, chickens, etc), and then after homework so I never fell into the realms of the 457 hour to complete sandbox games. In fact my Red Dead Redemption character has been asleep in the bunkhouse for three and a half years.

I bring that up because a few weeks ago I was playing the new TMNT game for PS3 and it is like a 3D arcade game you just pick it up play a while and you can leave it. Many, MANY people hate it for that reason. But I found myself saying, oh, I can play this for an hour or so but I don’t want to waste the entire afternoon. Only to stop playing and getting on the computer for email, social media, checking Amazon for shipping updates on the books I ordered for comps–all to waste the entire afternoon online.

I do not have the rigors of only interneting in my free time like I did with reading and Nintendo, so it isn’t hardwired in my brain to get over its constant connectivity and/or unplug. Many of the students I have worked with have the same issues, and sometimes even “internet” shows up on their lists of time wasting. It usually isn’t the entire internet though, they see facebook, and tumblr as wastes, but other areas of the online world = productivity. We balance out the need to argue on social media by having a library tab open in the browser as well. They see constant connectivity to the world as necessity and a boon to educational goals instead of a hindrance. With the capabilities of being instantly connected to targets ads and “we suggest” sections just looking up an unfamiliar word or phrase online can lead to a 6 hour youtube wormhole the ends up watching a quantum physics video with a Bon Jovi soundtrack. We really haven’t had the time to develop structured approaches to using the internet, and with as fast as it changes and grows, I don’t know that we actually have anything more powerful in place than turning the wifi off or physically unplugging the ethernet cable. Again, that takes character-building discipline.

If you are into schedules and you have the discipline that Colonel Haithi yelled at you about earlier, make sure you schedule in down time. This is as important as any other part of your programming. You must find something that helps you decompress, or clenases your palette of whatever educational discipline’s theory you are subjugating yourself to in order to know whose ass to kiss and whose theories to ignore. The ones my friends use vary as widely (and wildly) as their programs of study: comics, kayaking, laser tag, hiking, cartoons, soap operas (that one was actually our retiring Graduate College Dean), anything that can help you reset.

This also includes scheduling time to be with family and/or friends. Most of them (those that you still have by the time you are in the middle of graduate school) are there for you and want to see you succeed, and won’t be in the habit of helping you blow off work, but you need to make time to hang out, you’d be surprised how recharging even a short lunch can be, and you can tell them about your work which actually helps you think through it.

You may think you can plow through something and then reward yourself, and that may be correct with the 10, 15, or 25 page papers in class, but something like a thesis, or preparing for comps, or a dissertation, or life, can’t be  plowed through in totality without destroying the plow and the plower.

It also doesn’t hurt to triple check your list once you set the order. I blew two days working through a historiographic work on American Culture that is actually on the fourth page or so of the list. But other stuff happened too. Once you can finally get over the reading as not wasting more “valuable” time, then you can work on your process of note taking, what the purpose of it all is, and whatever existential crises arise when you can’t figure any of that out.

You may also wish to plan some gym or home workout time. That can overlap with your “me” time to decompress, or if you are capable you can read while you walk on a treadmill or something similar. Standing desks are all the rage currently, and even if you don’t have one at work, you might have a hard time reconciling yourself to hours of sitting a reading while you get flabby, fat and lazy.

Flabby, fat, and lazy

Walking also helps you think, so maybe a walk after reading will help you process things.

All the planning in the world won’t get you anywhere. You have to just get started.  Don’t wait until Monday, or the first of the month, or after your dental appointment, do it now. Like Floyd Pepper tells Kermit when they get to Lew Lord’s office in Hollywood:

Ain’t nothin’ to it, but to do it” 


The Road to Comps Part 0: Beginnings

This is the beginning…

Most people will tell you their exams were more nerve-wracking and stressful than their actual dissertation. At least that is what more than a few have told me. Comps, or generals, or just exams (all depending on your field, discipline, proclivities) are the final hurdle to being granted your ABD title. That is All But Done issertation.

The hardest part about it for me was the constant comparing of my progress with those around me both in my actual department as well as those I worked with in Art History. Many are fast out of the box and taking exams soon after finishing their masters with some build-up through some independent studies coursework with each of their committee members.  Watching people freak out about their progress isn’t the best way to spend your prep period.

If you take nothing more from this try to remember that your exams just as your dissertation are yours. They will not necessarily looks like anyone else’s. Even if you share committee members with another student their track and yours may be supporting vastly different trains.

I have been working for months on draft reading lists with my committee members in order to construct the most useful background for not only my dissertation but any potential employment opportunities that will hopefully spring forth in the next few years.

The final reading list has been set and I have been gathering up the lat few sources in order to see just what I am up against. Another one of those comparison issues was rendered ridiculous when I talked to another student who entered the program after I did but was reading to take comps before me said that he had an agreed final list approved months ago, but that it had changed a like 8 times. That seems way more stressful to me than waiting a few weeks for a solid list. If you are interested my entire list is posted on this site over under the PDFs section (here).  It looks something like this:

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 3.26.31 PM

Sorting out how I will be arranging the notes was actually part of the process of list construction. With the example above you can see subheadings under a more general question type. Instead of flooding  the blog section of the site with single book reviews which most would start out apologizing for not blogging the last one, I will have a post for each subsection that will serve to tie the books together and/or compare these established academics’ approaches to questions.

Until then, I will share the filling of the shelves over the last week or so. Luckily the half-shelves are on sale for back to school and I was able to grab a couple on the cheap. Originally I only picked up one because I hadn’t rearranged stuff at the house to put two together somewhere.

Empty shelf
Comps shelf 1.0

The first thing was to wade through the thousands of books in my personal library and see if any of them were on the list. I knew a handful were because they are what steered me into History of Science in the first place. The “already owned” portion actually takes up an entire shelf of the book shelf. Some of these books I have had since 2008 or so, which leads me to believe that I might have been thinking about some of this stuff longer than I actually realized.

The books that I already owned
The books that I already owned

The second, more complicated step was to figure out which ones my library owned and which ones I would need to interlibrary loan. Over the last few years our Library search ability has improved greatly. When I first started here in 2012 if it wasn’t an exact match in the system your book didn’t exist, and boolean searches were forms of witchcraft the system did not tolerate. So it was a matter of going through each one and hoping for a local call number.

My kingdom for a Call Number
My kingdom for a Call Number

Then the adventure really begins. Tracking down the books themselves. We have several special collections that are “non-circulating” so any book within that collection you have to access between the convenient hours of 10-5, or some variation thereof. Never after 5. The History of Science collections is one of those. Luckily, only two of the books on my list showed up there. Which should say something about the nature of my History of Science work, or what the collection decides is applicable to the history of science (or, either, neither, or both). One of those has a duplicate in the circulating geology library, and the remaining one had a duplicate in circulating stacks but it is marked as “missing.”  There were also a couple that are non-circulating that are $1.50=$3.00 on amazon, so I will be picking up a copy of my very own.  For any such undertaking a pocket notebook cannot be beat. Especially when you have to carry dozens of these around the entire library because your comprehensive exams are far more comprehensive than you anticipated.




The collecting process includes searching in vain for a book that has been checked out since the last time you checked the library search. In this case you can ask it to be recalled which will shrink the checkout time from months to two weeks from your request. Three of the five I needed were due back on the 19th of August anyway. One was checked out for a year (faculty) and the other no one seems to know.

An analog game called Comp-Exam-Source-Reading-Go
An analog game called Comp-Exam-Source-Reading-Go

The stages of gathering are limited by the size of your bag and when you can actually get into the stacks to look. A good portion of my books come from the Fine Arts Library across campus that closes at 5. Luckily we have intra-library loan as well as interlibrary loan and I was able to submit my requests and they were sent over to the main circulation desk in a couple days.

First run
First run
Run 2
Day 2

Before the first of the Fine Arts library pulls arrived I had time to expand the holdings into another shelf and move our dogs’ body pillow down a little more. It also means covering up the old phone plates in the living room, but even if we still used landlines, I really need to be reading these books and not be on the phone.



The final pulls from fine arts consisted of several exhibit books that are collections of essays that focus on a specific exhibit of an artists work or a thematic organization. These, and a few others came a day later than the others with a weird limited checkout time of only one week. When I checked on this it turned out that one of those recalls had been placed on them before I checked them out. This was curious as one of them (one on George Caleb Bingham) had not been checked out since the last time I checked it out a year and a half ago (it still had the pull slip from my last borrowing inside). How could someone need it exactly the same time I did. Turns out they had been scanned twice. Either by two separate library workers or by the same one twice. Whatever the case the recall that had been placed on the books I checked out came from myself.  With that cleared up I was able to pick them up and the handful (11) that had to come from other libraries across the US.

Saddlebag size can also limit the transportation of books
Saddlebag size can also limit the transportation of books
From bike to shelf
From bike to shelf

The final interlibrary loans came in on Thursday. This leaves a total of 12 books that are on my list that are missing from these two shelves below. Of those twelve I have plans on purchases 8, two of those non circulating ones and 6 that have been on my Amazon wishlist for a couple years anyway so now is the time. The other four are currently checked out to another patron and I will be notified when they are returned and I can pick them up. I will update with a final comps shelf photo with them all together when they come in order to provide a visual for the list that is linked above and what the preparations for comprehensive exams actually look like.

Nearly complete. Missing 12
Nearly complete. Missing 12

These are in the living room so they can stare at me whenever I am sitting in my chair working on something that isn’t comprehensive exam prep.

See, they are even doing it now?

It also keeps them together in case some of them get recalled before I am finished with them so I don’t have them strewn across the entire house. I don’t foresee many getting recalled since some of these are pretty archaic and idiosyncratic works that you will have the opportunity to read about in the coming months.

This will certainly be an interesting journey. Just flipping through some of the books I haven’t read before (not every book on this list is new to me), I find people I am intimately familiar with. For example the Albert Bierstadt gallery book fell open to these images and discussion on his last buffalo painting. The context for the photos is William Hornaday and his collection of a buffalo family for the Smithsonian, evan as they teetered on the edge of extinction. We better get them now before it’s too late was the logic. The bison also served as the impetus for a national zoological part in DC that would aid in protecting and attempt to recuperate the numbers of buffalo in the US.* This zoo, and one of its directors, was the focus of my first master’s these at Lamar University.

Hi Guys! It's Hornaday, Smithsonian, and the National Zoo in a book about Albert Bierstadt
Hi Guys! It’s Hornaday, Smithsonian, and the National Zoo in a book about Albert Bierstadt

I hope this is a good omen for this work to be more tying things together than creating all new knowledge. On the up side of things, there isn’t a book on this list that I am dreading reading. Hopefully it will be useful to me to get through comps, and of interest enough for you to come back from time to time and see where I’ve made it.


*yes, I know that bison and buffalo are two separate animals, and they shouldn’t be used interchangeably, however my work looks at most of the 19th century and most of the people I write about called them buffalo so I will too, if you don’t like that I have a marvelous little cartoon by Neil Kohney that I keep handy for just such an occasion:

I love this comic. The fact that it was released on my birthday makes it even better. ©Neil Kohney
I love this comic. The fact that it was released on my birthday makes it even better. ©NeilKohney