Dissertating in the Open: Comprehensive Qualifying Exams

I passed my comps last Tuesday, and I thought I’d take some time to write about it today.

Previously, on Dissertating in the Open:

  1. Inspiration strikes and I write a prospectus.
  2. I work with my advisor to select five areas for my comprehensive examination literature review package.
  3. I contact five faculty members - 3 internal, 2 external - and ask them to be on my committee. They accept.
  4. I had my first meeting with my committee and we narrowed the scope for my lit review a bit.
And then I didn’t really blog about the process for 9 months because I was too busy actually writing the literature review.

Over the course of that process, some things shifted.

As I mentioned in my post about my first committee meeting, my lens on information literacy changed from a broad one to one that narrowly focused on information literacy practices as a set of sociocultural practices, tied to a particular context and set of social interactions.

When it came time to write about theory, I decided to write exclusively about the theoretical concept of affinity spaces. I discussed collective intelligence and participatory culture in the information literacy chapter instead, and decided to included Sonnenwald’s work on information behavior as part of my proposal.

As I wrote about affinity spaces, I learned about some new-to-me methodologies: connective ethnography and affinity space ethnography. I took on ethnography as my broad research design, taking a constructivist research approach, and then used connective/affinity space ethnography as my stance for how to conduct ethnography in the cosplay affinity space.

Over the next several months, I drafted chapters of my comps and sent them to my committee for review. You can see the first drafts here:

  1. Information Literacy as a Social Practice
  2. Cosplay
  3. Connected Learning and Libraries
  4. Affinity Spaces
  5. Connective and Affinity Space Ethnography
I prepared for and wrote each of those drafts using some variation of my start-to-finish literature review workflow, drawing heavily on recommendations from Dr. Barbara Wildemuth and Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega. I didn’t always follow the workflow in a truly linear fashion; sometimes I would find myself needing to memo a subset of literature before I could move on to another concept at all. Other times I would write a memo that was basically a draft, then mark it up with pens and rearrange the whole thing. Sometimes I would cut entire sections after writing them. I’m a little sorry I didn’t document this process better.

As I finished each chapter, I sent it out to my committee. Different committee members provided different amounts of feedback, but none of them were under any obligation to provide any feedback at all. I’m grateful to them for their help.

When I started writing the final chapter, the methods chapter, I first began by memoing articles about my specific data collection methods. As I tried to turn these into a cohesive literature review, I realized I needed some guidance. So I emailed my advisor, Dr. Sandra Hughes-Hassell, and my research methods expert, Dr. Casey Rawson, asking them about this chapter. Casey suggested that this chapter should be about my research design and approach - constructivist? pragmatist? participatory? and ethnography? case study? narrative? - more than my specific data collection and analysis methods, which would be a key part of the proposal rather than the lit review. This help determining the scope of the chapter was invaluable, and let me really focus on connective and affinity space ethnography conceptually.

I revised the chapters based on my committee member’s feedback and my own notes, compiling them into a single document along with my prospectus, also slightly revised. I also sent the committee a brief statement of my research interests.

I submitted all of that to the committee at the end of October. We scheduled my comprehensive examination date for December 10. In my department, the literature review stands in lieu of a written exam.

Over the next month, I drafted my dissertation proposal, which will be another post, though I did finish it in time for my committee to have it for a few days before my comps.

For the comps exam itself, my internal examiners were physically present, while my external examiners called in via Zoom. We began the exam with me delivering the following brief presentation as an overview/refresher:

(Note: If you are a cosplayer or photographer featured in this slideshow and would like your image removed, please let me know and I’ll take care of it ASAP.)

After this, Sandra asked each committee member to ask me a question, working around the Zoom/room clockwise. Each committee member had one or more really insightful questions to ask that helped me think about my methods, my plans for data analysis, the role of theory in my study, and how I conceptualize cosplay and the relationship between cosplayer, character, narrative, and costume.

In the end, I passed and came out of the exam with several ideas for how to refine my dissertation proposal, which I’ll write more about in my next Dissertating in the Open post.

Kimberly Hirsh @kimberlyhirsh