A few days ago, I opened a box and one of my past lives fell out. Specifically, I found the papers related to my comprehensive exams, way back in the second year of my Ph.D. Without question, the seven months I spent studying for the comps was the most stressful period of my life. And long after it was over, some of those papers held an eerie, residual power over me. They were like voodoo dolls of a former self.
Weird, super-nerdy voodoo dolls, I freely admit. In the year 2000, if my apartment had suddenly gone up in flames, THIS is what I would have risked everything to save. Check it out:
Handwritten notes on every poem/novel/essay on my reading list…
(These go on for hundreds of pages. I’ll spare you the rest.)
I even saved basic administrative memos as though they were essential legal documents.
And in a sense, they were. For seven precarious months at the start of my academic career, they represented everything that was official and certain. Certainties are a rare luxury in the humanities and I felt deeply superstitious about throwing these out.
As for the comps, I’ve never worked so hard or so long at something for which there was no feedback, no further steps, no discussion. After I got my exam results, that was… it. End of story. Yet the trauma around the comps haunted me for years. I even blogged about it a few years ago, and the horror was fresh and vivid at the time.
When the comps jack-in-the-boxed out at me this week, however, I felt… mildly amused.
I sifted the papers. I flicked through my painstaking notes. (I disagreed with my assessments, at some points. At others, I found my past self quite insightful.) And here’s the best part: I recycled all the administrative stuff, the stern injunctions to self (Check dates v. v. carefully! ESP. CENTURY!), the practice exams, the elaborate table I made that cross-referenced critical themes in canonical works. All that stuff? Gone.
For some reason, the comps wound has finally healed. I’m keeping my handwritten notes because they tickle me, and because I feel a distinct nostalgia for the hundreds of hours of work they represent. But they’re no longer a sinister talisman to ward off failure and ignominy and an uncertain future. And maybe that’s the point.
Fifteen years on, I’m an entirely different person. I’m happily, confidently working outside academia. I know who I am, and I like who I am.
That other, anxious, frantic Ying? I’ll keep her notes because I like her company. But I don’t need her baggage.