Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 2015, Vol. 14(2) 206–227 http://ahh.sagepub.com/content/14/2/206.full.pdf+html

Like climbing Jacob’s ladder: An art-based exploration of the comprehensive exam process

Sara Scott Shields Department of Art Education, Florida State University, USA

“And he [Jacob] dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and jacobs ladder.docxthe top of it reached to heaven!”

(Genesis 28:10–12, English Standard Version)

The comprehensive exam process is a rite of passage in the scholarly world, and as such the movements of this process often feel like a guarded secret to graduate students.   As a recent graduate from a PhD program, I feel as if I have just woken up from a dream much like Jacob’s, a dream where I was faced with the impossible task of ascending (and sometimes descending) a ladder leading nowhere and everywhere at the same time. The chaotic but organized movement of comprehensive exams, prospectus, and dissertation writing is one of great struggle followed by pronounced triumph; however, when it is over, the memory of it quickly begins to fade. With graduate school behind me, I feel the once vivid experience quickly fading from my consciousness, much like a dream. In an effort to create a tangible moment, I have chosen to collect and share a portion of my own experience in graduate school. This is my story of climbing Jacob’s ladder. While it is a story about my experience with the comprehensive exam process, it is also a story about how I used art to process the process of becoming.  In this article I walk you through my own experiences during graduate school, narrating and illustrating the text with excerpts from my exam responses, art making and journals. While one aim of this paper was to explore my own experiences in graduate school, the overarching goal was to create something that graduate students could read before entering into the comprehensive exam process.  Something that reminds them the most valuable part of the experience is not in the bound final paper, it is not in the nerve-racking defense; rather it is in the experience as a collective convergence of thinking and reflecting, it is this that offers the greatest opportunities for personal growth and scholarly development.  Write on my fellow emerging scholars!  Write on!


Sara Scott Shields is a recent graduate from the University of Georgia with a PhD in Art focused in art education. She is currently an Assistant Professor of art education at Florida State University. Her research interests revolve around arts-based approaches to both research and learning, with a specific focus on arts informed qualitative research methodologies, visual thinking strategies in higher education curriculum and pedagogy, and teacher/researcher identity development.  She can be contacted at skshields@fsu.edu or on twitter @sarasshields



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