I’m currently studying for the GRE Subject Test in Literature. This will be the second time I take it. For those who don’t know, it’s an exam that tests your knowledge on the literary canon, including Greek mythology and the King James Bible. To put it mildly, I wish I didn’t have to. I won’t even mention my scores on here- they’re abysmal.
Unless the programs I wish to apply to change their rules tomorrow, I have to take this. It’s a brutal exam, but when you begin the process of applying for PhD programs, you automatically accept completing every prerequisite and requirement, whether it is reaching out to old mentors for letters of rec, or taking an exam so antiquated and ineffective at testing aptitude, that more and more schools across the country are abandoning it. I’m staring at my books, looking at my reading lists, trying to not already feel defeated.
I shake my head awake, and start reading. I’m using all of the resources I can to study for this exam. It’s not an exaggeration when I say how comprehensive it is. The test is 230 questions long, and based on the amount of time, you have roughly thirty seconds to answer each question. There are some, very few, stand-alone questions that ask a specific question, but the rest are passages from texts, followed by a series of questions that ask about motive, themes, and eventually knowledge on that particular passage. (Who is the author? Where is this passage from?) I’m trying to digest 1300 years of knowledge for a three-hour exam. Why would I agree to this? Why would anyone? I’m still wrapping my head around this.
Last week, I worked out my process, making flashcards, memorizing key terms, buying the prep books and study guides. (Ugh!!! Even writing this is frustrating) I then realized that I was operating under a very specific kind of fear- the fear of performing as poorly as I did last time. That realization was a shovel to the face- I’m so scared of doing poorly, that studying only reminds me how futile this whole thing is. I had to stop everything I was doing and ask, What exactly do I need to do? The answer is actually very simple- I need to know a quantity of information, so when I’m asked to demonstrate how well I know it, I can respond adequately. That’s really it. I then put the cards and practice sheets away, opened up my Nortons (British and American Literary anthologies), and started reading.
I started reading the Intro sections and encyclopedic descriptions of works, then all of sudden, I saw myself back in my old survey classes- the ones you take in undergrad that expose you to specific time periods and regions of literature. I was essentially reading the syllabi from all of those classes. Milton, Beowulf, Nathanial Hawthorne. I know these names, but under the impression of the GRE, it felt like this inaccessible knowledge. It hit me- I LOVE this stuff! It’s my passion- it’s why I study it. I continued to read, and slowly, they opened themselves up to me, as they did when I read them almost a decade ago. Like Sisyphus, what was previously assigned to me as a punishment, I was able to reclaim it as my own act of liberation. I embraced these texts as a scribe does, laboring for hours, diligently, to the point where I was now one with them. The best part about this was applying the critical application and reading skills to books I read years ago, making them come alive with new context. (I devoted my life to reading- this is a big deal!) I also realized that I was being tested on matters of details, like character names, plots, and not on theoretical approaches or the author’s intent. If that’s the case, why stress this so much? I’m memorizing storylines, not writing a Masters thesis on this. Work hard, study, and it will stick.
There’s a piece on my reading list I’ve never had to read before- Cædmon’s Hymn by the poet Bade (Saint Bade, Venerable Bade, what-have-you), an excerpt from his longer work The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, about an illiterate cowherd who was blessed with the gift of song by God. After writing twenty-page long articles for publication and assigning essays to my students that I have read countless times, seeing something so new and so different was now refreshing, encouraging me to learn something new. Maybe that’s how you are supposed to read Cædmon’s Hymn- with an open mind, prepared to read something over a thousand years old, with Old English letters that no longer exist. I was pronouncing diphthongs and using caesuras while going over this poem. It’s about nine lines long, but trying, and studying, and working on knowing this well was exactly what I needed at this point. I was a student again, eager to learn, attempting to master this knowledge.
(for anyone interested, here is what Cædmon’s Hymn sounds like in Old English)
I’m now marching on, reading and studying, like back in the day when studying was my sole occupation. Currently, I’m reading all of these sections from my old Norton Lit anthologies from my undergrad classes. Here is a breakdown of my study strategy:
Whatever reading list you are using (there are some good ones in my links page), stick to those readings, and if they are in your Norton Anthology, read each introduction or supplemental section to the piece your reading, either on the author, the text itself, or the period, or sometimes all three (You might have to read all three sections when you get to writers like Chaucer and Milton).
- Make flashcards for each work, including author’s name, title, list of characters, (if possible) backgrounds of authors (heritage, cultural/social/political influence and persuasions), plot, main themes, and time period
- Read as much as you can from the text; if possible, the entire text. With longer works, like Shakespeare plays and novels, knowing the material is important, but as long as you can grasp the material and have a sense of what the text is trying to accomplish, such as understanding themes and plots, you should be fine with that. With poems (mainly from Spenser, Marlowe, and Herrick; 14th-19th Cen. poets), you should read them in their entirety, almost to the point where you memorize them. This is emphasized more so since some authors have influenced others, meaning their writing style may seem similar.
- Going back to grasping the material, read the texts you are reading until you can read it fluently. The goal is to familiarize yourself with the language. Knowing the details is important, but when you are reading a passage without knowing where it’s from, being able to recognize style with the right author or time period can be really helpful. This is especially helpful with older texts (Chaucer, Bede, Sir Gawain, etc.).
- You might also want to make flashcards for authors and literary terms, and if you can, theoretical approaches (psychoanalytic, Marxist, structural/post-structural). You may not be asked to perform a psychoanalytic reading of a passage, but there are questions that ask for names or approaches and what they’re synonymous with. (Which gender studies theorist is best known for associating gender with performativity?)
- Take timed practice exams, either by reading random passages to yourself or testing with a friend. Memorizing this is good, but when you’re being timed, the anxiety is harder to get through than reading a passage by William Thackeray. Yuck.
I’ve been using this method for two weeks and it’s been paying off well. Information and lines are going to my head, and they’re staying there- that’s the goal I’ve been shooting for. I’m actually looking forward to reading these new texts. I’ll post about this in the next few weeks to see if this is working for the long run. It’s a lot of material, but I feel pumped, and I’m not going anywhere.
The night I started this process, I had a really strange dream. I was finishing up a study session at the library, walking out carrying a gigantic stack of books, with my book bag slung over my shoulder and my reading glasses slipping off (which was strange since I don’t wear glasses). I walked outside, and I was suddenly on this path, a yellow dirt road, almost reflective, and the library miles behind me already. As I walked, I started to drop everything I was carrying- my bag, glasses, and all of my books. I remember seeing them hit the ground, but when they did, they were no longer that item, but a piece of armor I was shedding. Breastplate, armbrace, greaves, helmet. All that was left was a gauntlet on my right hand, and all I can see was a faint outline of a mountain miles away. My goal was to walk towards this hill, not knowing how long it will take or what I will have to face. All I know is that that is where I want to be.