Student Advice on the Literature Comprehensive Exam

Selecting a Committee: Students who have recently negotiated their prelims with success provide the following advice:

        To build your committee you’ll need to approach professors with whom you’ve taken seminars and perhaps, occasionally,  professors with whom you haven’t. It’s important to discuss your interests with professors whose seminars you’re taking and keep them informed about your progress after the seminar is over. Ask them for advice about which other professors in the program would be strong committee members for you. 

  •     Should you need to ask professors whom you’ve not yet studied with, it’s a good idea to read their recent books and articles and be prepared to discuss with them how their work intersects with and informs yours. Visit them during their office hours, introduce yourself, detail your interests and your desire to have them serve on your committee. Mention your other committee members and chair. Ask if you can sit in on one of their upper-level undergraduate classes. Also, ask if they have time to read some of your recent writing.
  •     When assembling a preliminary exam list, consider both your areas of interest and area(s) of specialization. Conceptualize the reading list as a way to prepare for scholarship in a given field and establish scholarly and theoretical breadth. Avoid overspecialization.
  •      Construct a manageable list. Be assertive in working with your committee, so that the list doesn’t become too large to be feasible for the time frame you’ve allotted.
  •      Keep a reading notebook, and compile 1 to 3 pages of notes for each text you read. Aside from maintaining a record of your thoughts and insights about the texts, this kind of catalogue of notes creates a critical narrative within your on-going scholarship and within your views of literary histories. Think of prelim study as an opportunity to embark on extensive in-depth reading and critical inquiry that will help you crystallize your interests.
  •      Read with the dissertation in mind. Use your extensive prelim reading to trace how ideas or theories  work through sets of texts. Articles and eventual dissertation often emerge from this kind of reading of  literary texts as grouped in dialogue.
  •       When reading, maintain a consistent schedule, especially if you’re teaching. One student’s mantra:  “Balance and Routine.” Allow time off from reading within your schedule. Each week, make room for  pleasurable reading alongside more taxing reading.
  •      Don’t study more than six to eight months before the exam but plan to being your reading early in your PhD program.
  •      Avoid postponing exams. Stay on course.
  •      Well before your written exam dates, confer with your committee about the kinds of questions to  anticipate. Don’t be afraid to seek out specific advice about the exams you’ll take, and to indicate what areas of the field especially interest you.
  •      Copy and study old exams. The Program Assistant maintains files of prior exams and will be glad to share them with you.
  •      Some students find it useful to brainstorm through short written analyses as a way to envision essays  for the exam.
  •      Dress rehearse: Create some sample questions and practice writing non-stop for four hours.
  •      Conceptualize the kinds of answers you might write. View the exams themselves as creative, scholarly enterprises.
  •      After you’ve completed the written portion, reread what you’ve composed (copies will be given to you after each exam). Be prepared to elaborate on ideas or issues you couldn’t complete or had to leave undeveloped in the written exam.
  •      Think of the oral exam as a chance to facilitate discussion with scholars rather than just an exam  where you field questions.
  •       During the oral exam, give specific examples. Try to have one or two specific things to say about  each text on your list.
  •       If a question comes up about a text you can’t fully recall, redirect the questions to another: “I can  apply that question to this other text, for example.”


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