Monthly Archives: February 2011

The ABCs of ABDs

We write a lot of congratulatory posts on this blog when our students clear another hurdle on their road to the PhD, and that includes successfully completing the preliminary exams. You’ve probably seen a number of “So-and-So, ABD” updates over the last year, and while that’s certainly a good thing–it means we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing as a program–it might help to know exactly what all goes in to the process. Previously, we featured a post about what to expect in your 3rd year, so let this serve as an expansion on that to focus more specifically on the exams process.

It’s a requirement shrouded in mystery to many students entering a PhD program. Hopefully, that mystery gets dispelled as quickly as possible during your coursework, but for some it’s still a lingering surprise to work out the logistics. Surprises can lead to delays, and delays can lead to fear. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

Take exams in the 3rd year, you will.

So, just how do CRDM exams work? According to our own program’s website:

Students must successfully complete two examinations in order to receive the PhD: the preliminary examination (written and oral components) and the final oral examination (dissertation defense).

The written portion of the preliminary examination will be geared toward assessing mastery of both core requirement subject matter and areas of specialization chosen by the student. The specific content will be based on reading lists developed in conjunction with the advisory committee. It will consist of three questions designed by that committee, focusing on the areas of specialization; answers to these questions are to be completed in a 72-hour period.

The oral portion of the preliminary examination follows successful completion of the written portion and includes a representative from the Graduate School. This portion will last approximately two hours, and while it may include material covered in the written examination, it should not be limited to the written work and will usually include discussion of the dissertation prospectus. A unanimous vote of approval of the advisory committee is required to pass the preliminary examination.

In practice, this means our fulltime students typically take their exams sometime during the third year after we’ve completed the coursework. A few of us have managed to take the exams in the fall semester but the majority take them in the spring. To every season, turn turn turn (unless of course you’re an Artificial Intelligence major, in which case–to every season, Turin, Turin, Turin).

To break it down, then, students:

  • study 3 exam areas, and are
  • asked 1 question for each area, for which they have
  • 4 hours to answer, and this repeats for
  • 3 days in a row, for a total of
  • 12 hours of exams.

The actual execution of the exams varies somewhat depending on the direction of the committee chair. For example, some students work with their chair to develop a possible set of questions ahead of time, while others study their reading lists in broader preparation for the unknown. How many pages should each question be? As any good writing instructor would respond, it should take as many pages as necessary and not a single one extra. In the past, we’ve had quite the range, from a solid average of 10 pages for each answer to upwards of 25 or more.

Regardless of page number, after the 3rd exam is in the bank and the 30th hour of sleep is recovered, the student’s committee will review the answers and determine whether or not additional supplements are required. Maybe you didn’t answer a question thoroughly enough, or maybe your answer ignored one of the sub-bullets in the question altogether. Either way, the committee chair will assemble the required additions/revisions and send them to the student with a timeframe for completion. Once everyone’s happy with the written exams, the CRDMer will work with the committee members to arrange a date for the oral defense. Meanwhile, the committee will have a chance to review the dissertation prospectus, which often doubles as the first chapter.

After that, it’s just a simple matter of a 2-hour meeting to cover both the written exam answers and the dissertation prospectus, all with an independent member of the Graduate School present to guard against the chances of ballyhoo, tomfoolery, and other incredibly outdated slang words for mischief. Once the committee unanimously agrees that you’re altogether an amazing master of your assembled scholarly areas, you’re free to go about your dissertation business and append the letters “ABD” to your email signature.

We recognize that each PhD program has its own unique way of handling the exams, so if you’re reading this and had a different experience we’d love to hear from you in the comments. Also, if any CRDM students–past or present–want to chime in on their own experiences, feel free to do so as well.


Filed under exams and dissertations, the program

Jason Kalin, ABD

Jason Kalin @ The Graduate Symposium

Last spring he was an award-winning symposium presenter. This spring he passed his exams. We can safely assume he'll cure a disease by next March, right?

Jason Kalin, our reigning CRDMSA president, joined his fellow ranks of doctoral candidates by successfully passing his preliminary exams on Tuesday, February 15th.

Jason’s research focuses on the fourth canon of rhetoric and how it intersects with digital media tools and cultural practices. Now that he’s ABD, Jason will begin the long and challenging super fun journey of working on his dissertation, which is tentatively titled, “Reanimating Memory: The Prospects of Rhetoric in a Digital Age.”  He’ll be working under the expert guidance of his committee chair Vicki Gallagher, as well as members Carolyn Miller, Hans Kellner, and David Rieder. Gallagher had this to say about Jason’s success:

On behalf of the members of his committee,  I would like to congratulate Jason Kalin on a job well done.  Jason’s reading lists for his comprehensive/qualifying examination were among the lengthiest and most comprehensive that I have seen, yet he was able to demonstrate sophisticated mastery of the material.   The external observer for the exam commented that it was one of the most rigorous oral examinations he had witnessed and that he admired the aplomb with which Jason responded to committee members’ questions.  We look forward to working with Jason as he brings his own intellectual contributions to fruition in the dissertation.

Congrats, Mr. President!

You can check out more of Jason’s research, teaching, and other interests at his online portfolio or catch his upcoming CCCC presentation in Atlanta in April. You can also look for him on the sand volleyball courts, where he drives spikes so hard they make John Henry look like, um, a person from American folklore history who is significantly weaker at driving spikes. Rats–should have thought that one through.

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Filed under exams and dissertations

Literacy isn’t going to hell in a handbasket: The NC Symposium on Teaching Writing

On February 4th and 5th, The First-Year Writing Program hosted the North Carolina Symposium on Teaching Writing. For a weekend one month into the semester, The CRDM showing was strong, both in audience members and presenters. Dana Gierdowski and Robin Oswald presented “Altering Our Assumptions: A Study of the Digital Literacy Skills of First-Year Writing Students.” The detailed their first round of very interesting quantitative results concerning (you guessed it) digital literacy of students in the composition classroom. Lauren Clark, Meagan Kittle Autry, Kate Maddalena, and Wendi Sierra presented a panel titled “The Hybrid Composition Classroom: Teaching from Two Platforms.” After one semester of hybrid teaching (a mix of face-to-face and online teaching) under their respective belts, the four discussed challenges, the roles of teachers and students in a hybrid environment, and strategies for effective hybrid teaching.

But one of the main highlights of the symposium was the keynote address, given by Dr. Andrea A. Lunsford who teaches at Stanford. Dr. Lunsford’s talk was titled “The Role of Rhetoric and (New Media) Writing in 21st Century Universities.” She tackled an issue that often rears its head in contemporary discussions of composition teaching; how is new media successfully incorporated into traditional studies of rhetoric and writing?


Dr. Lunsford does not subscribe to the idea that the youth of today are less intelligent and more illiterate than in the past; she was vehemently against the idea that literacy is “going to hell in a handbasket.” Rather, she argued that students are writing more (and more frequently) than ever before and, additionally, they are learning that their writing has consequences. I hastily took this to mean the consequence of writing in public fora; blogging, Facebooking, and the like. But Dr. Lunsford instead focused on how students are using writing to create, shape, and change their world. “Good writing,” she said, “makes something happen in the world.” Moreover, she argued that the new forms of literacy are collaborative, participatory, performative, and less expert-centered. She cited Knobel & Lankshear to point out that new literacies are characterized by a “cyberspatial post-industrial mindset,” and thus that young people are thinking of traditional textual ownership (and writing in general) in new ways.


One of the best parts of Lunsford’s talk was that she followed up these assertions with cogent, timely examples of how her students engage directly with their world through the use of writing. One student created what Lunsford called an Invention Engine: a database of Shakespeare poems, Tupac lyrics, and his own poetry (which he viewed as being a part of a “larger poetic commons”) to allow students to mix, and remix, to create new works of poetry. This particular example highlighted students’ evolved notion of authorship and ownership; the Invention Engine creator makes his own poetry available through the database he created, yet also included copyrighted works without batting an eye. Clearly — and thanks in large part to the Internet — students are thinking of copyright in different ways. This means composition instructors have to approach class discussions of plagiarism from new perspectives. As Lunsford said, “New literacies are not bound by traditional notions of intellectual property.”


Along the same line, Dr. Lunsford also discussed the need for instructors to figure out what is necessary to retain in the vein of traditional rhetoric. Rhetoric is a plastic art, she argued, and will have a place in society unless we evolve into a totalitarian regime [insert joke about Sarah Palin and literacy here]. However, she noted that instructors must decide what needs to be retained within the practices of “old” literacies, and in turn what we can learn from new literacies. The evolution of copyright is just one example of this shift from old to new. There are myriad other issues to work out, but the main point is that both new media and evolved understandings of rhetoric are playing major roles in teaching composition today. Dr. Lunsford closed with what she sees as the goal of rhetoric and writing: to “help us learn to live — and to live well and ethically and productively — in the world.”


The North Carolina Symposium on Teaching Writing was a great success; big thanks are in order to all those who helped put the symposium together. And I think it is clear that, by both the marvelous keynote address and the excellent panels I saw, that current college instructors are doing important, cutting-edge work in their writing classrooms. It is obvious that with teachers like these, the handbasket that houses literacy is miles away from hell.

In fact, one could argue that being in a first-year college writing course is simply heaven.



Filed under conferences, professional development

RSA Chapter Kicks Off at NCSU with Sound Advice for Responding to Calls

(Not from Advice Dog, thankfully.)

As we promised earlier, NC State’s Rhetoric Society of America (RSA) chapter held its first meeting with several CRDM students in attendance. Dr. Carolyn Miller, one of our program’s co-founders and the current editor of the journal Rhetoric Society Quarterly, was there as well to offer advice on responding to calls for articles and conference presentations on rhetoric. Dr. Miller suggests you should:

  1. Have something to say. What people are looking for are interesting claims. You want to position an abstract or proposal in a way that shows that you have already done enough to have something to say rather than just laying out a trajectory of exploration.
  2. Position yourself. As the Burkean statement goes, you are part of a conversation. You are making a contribution in an ongoing exchange. If you are giving a response and you don’t know who you are talking to then that is not really an example of well-positioned disciplinary discourse.
  3. Make sure that the conference organizer or editor is able to see a clear connection between your proposal or article and the call, if it concerns a specific topic or theme. Sometimes, repeating key words from the call (or clear synonyms) can be useful. Some calls, on the other hand, cast a very wide net. Check out Berkenkotter & Huckin’s study of submissions to 4Cs (ch. 6 in Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication).
  4. Know the place you are sending your proposal or paper in to. Know your audience. That goes without saying in journal submissions, but still needs to be said is to read the journal. Don’t submit a journal article to a journal you have never read.
  5. Early on in your career it can be important and useful to look at fit between your work and a variety of different audiences by going to a variety of different conferences. However, when in doubt it does not hurt your research identity to continue to go to the largest of national conferences in your field. When in doubt (or restricted travel funding) sacrifice the regional conferences.
  6. Balance conference attendance; do not over-commit and find yourself unable to produce. You can always withdraw a conference paper if you are unable to produce quality work, but do so ahead of time and with notice.
  7. Check out listservs such as hrhetor, CRTNET, and U Penn’s website for more info on calls. If you joint RSA, you will receive timely messages about RSA conferences and other calls.

Thanks to Dr. Miller for these helpful tips and for helping us resurrect our chapter of RSA.

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