Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

the important thing about comprehensive exams (from a Buddhist perspective) ~

There are a lot of things you expect to learn if you get a doctorate. Primarily, of course, your subject. But there are also things you don’t expect to learn. Like… well, what I realised yesterday in the shower (is that TMI?).

When I took my comprehensives, they were two Saturdays in a row. Writing. Most of the day. And you wrote the entire time. Even with the HUGE thermos of mocha cappuccino I took to mine, I barely took time to hit the bathroom next to the computer lab. Basically? You write for hours… And then? Well, you write some more. :)


And here’s the thing: because you’re writing for such a very long time, you become too tired to pretend. If you don’t like a topic (Aristotle, for instance), it comes out. You may be able to BS a short essay. Perhaps you can finesse an oral question. And if you have time to revise? You can go back and surgically excise the parts you think aren’t politic…:) But when you’ve been writing for 2 1/2 hours, and you begin a 2nd question, you don’t have much BS left. What you write is, pretty much, what you think.


This is both freeing and terrifying. On my exams, I learned that the incisive academic prose I prided myself on was ‘distinctive’ (as in lauded) by some faculty. It was ‘barely permissible’ by another.  My voice hadn’t shifted. My audience had.

This is not something I expected to learn from taking my comps. I expected to learn — and did — about research. About poetic craft. About poets, and the literary tradition, even about my 2ndary fields. But it never occurred to me that I’d learn something that would, as an old sensei  told me, ‘bloom long after the master had passed.’

Because it’s been years since I had my comprehensive exams. One of my dissertation committee died far too young, others have moved to unknown destinations. I don’t think of them often. But this piece of learning came back today, as I thought about my own students, and my own learning now.


We can only really be what we are. I can work to give back — write with my life? — what I have learned, what I know. But I can’t keep up BS — especially when it’s alien to who and what I am. It will fail me, ultimately. It’s a lesson I try to offer my students, but perhaps it will take them as long to learn as it did me. That all we really have is who we are…

Still: it’s not a bad lesson from a Ph.D., really ~


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