Studying for my doctoral comprehensive exams was beastly. I don’t recall how many books I had to have mastered, but it neared 100 – a collection of primary, secondary, theoretical, and other texts. Directing my comps study was a professor whose literary interests aligned with mine, actually the only person in the department with significant overlap in our areas of study. He guided my book selection and preparation, and I thought I could be honest with him.
I thought wrong.
I had three comprehensive exams: a foreign language proficiency exam, which I recall; a written exam, which I seem to have blocked from my memory; and an oral exam, whose horrors sometimes haunt me. Prior to my oral exam, I told my director my areas of challenge, hoping he could impart some wisdom to propel me forward. In his defense, he probably did, but I don’t recall. I remember the experiences of the oral exam, however.
It began well enough. The panel of professors asked questions about the books on my list and the field generally, and I answered them. One professor asked why I wanted to study 19th Century American literature as opposed to British literature. I told her because I enjoyed it and I didn’t particularly enjoy British literature. She pressed. I didn’t have a proper answer, so I talked a bit about how I could relate to the experiences in American literature more. I may or may not have said something along the lines of “Some people like chocolate; some don’t. There’s no accounting for taste.”
After limping over the hurdle of taste, instead of regaining ground, I got run over by busses hurtling toward me at ferocious speeds, with my comps director sitting maniacally at the wheel. He asked questions about every area of challenge I had disclosed to him. Every single one – like he had studied a list of my shortcomings to publicly flagellate me with them at the earliest opportunity. In hindsight, I recognize this maneuver exposed me to the gaps in my understanding of the field, and believe me, I rectified those gaps. At the time, however, it just turned a stressful situation even more so. Despite the difficulties, the panel decided I had displayed sufficient knowledge to pass. I relaxed my tensed shoulders, thanked everyone, and prepared to leave. Then my director delivered the coup de grâce.
He stood and offered a speech about how comps directors normally chair their students’ dissertations, but that he refused to do so and would not work with me again. I did not understand why, but by the time he finished his speech, I didn’t care. I definitely responded with something along the lines of “What a relief. I didn’t care for working with you either.”
I thought my stress would end with the completion of my comps, but it became more pronounced. I needed someone to chair my dissertation, but no one in the department shared my literary interests; moreover, no one wanted to work with me. I drifted in doctoral limbo for the next several years with no direction on how to move forward to complete my degree, growing more stressed and more detached from the department with each passing semester. I turned to my old friends reading and journaling, who had pulled me out of previous quagmires.
Reading reduces stress. Losing yourself in the pages of a book and focusing on the characters’ problems rather than your own is relaxing. It simultaneously helps you practice gratitude as you connect with and examine what is happening in the book and subconsciously compare that to your own life circumstances.
Journaling also reduces stress. Writing about your emotions helps you to address them, which helps you to see negative feelings in context (rather than out of proportion). It also helps you focus on what you’re grateful for, which improves well-being by helping you see what resources, support, and joy you have in your life.
As you read, you connect with and examine the action taking place in the story and the interior world of the characters. This external analysis hones your ability to clarify your own thoughts and feelings. Similarly, journaling is a great tool for investigating and reflecting. Writing without judgment and without censoring, journaling allows you to access and entertain ideas and emotions you normally hide, even from yourself. When you journal regularly, your brain skips the preliminaries and takes you right to the meat of what’s going on inside you.
Both reading and journaling also help you sleep better. As part of a nighttime ritual, these acts can signal your body it’s time to wind down and relax. Having screen-free time before bed improves sleep, and curling up with a physical book or journal is a great way to accomplish this. Journaling before bed helps you move your worries from your brain onto paper, which reduces the mental noise that may keep you up at night.
In addition to my pleasure reading and journaling, I read my bible and kept a devotional journal. The spiritual reading and writing centered me, encouraged me, and strengthened me to stay on my path.
Completing my doctorate took more years than it should have, but I probably would have given up if not for reading and journaling helping me to stave off the stress. Unfortunately, I didn’t recognize reading and journaling as self care and didn’t associate them with my stress reduction and eventual success. I abandoned my habit of reading and journaling daily when life got better. Now, however, I recognize both practices as vital to my well-being and engage in them proactively to lead my optimal life. If I can, so can you.
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I am doing a 31-day series on reading and journaling as self care for educators. Each day of the series has bonus journal prompts. Click to join the LELA House family of educators committed to nourishing their reading, writing, and creative souls. You’ll receive a link to the journal prompts and gain early access to upcoming LELA House ideas, courses, and products. You only need to subscribe once. I will add a new worksheet each day to the access link.
Roshaunda D. Cade, Ph.D. is an educator, writer, and creator. She lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband and teenage children and enjoys reading, writing, dancing, and pushing her creative boundaries. You can follow her at roshaundacade.com, lela-house.com, and on Teachable, Medium, Youtube, Pinterest, and Instagram.