As one of three final exercise options, MA students may elect to sit for a one-hour oral exam. The MA oral takes place in the final semester. It is conducted by two faculty members on a topic and list of readings submitted by the student. Lists normally consist of ten primary texts and three secondary texts selected from those established by the department to represent various fields. Alternatively, students may devise a list of comparable scope with its own principle of coherence (thematic, generic, or the like), accompanied by a one-page proposal explaining the selection of texts. All lists must be approved by an area committee head or other appropriate faculty member as well as the Director of Graduate Studies. Applications and lists for the MA oral are available here.
Designed to make doctoral candidates professionally conversant with two separate areas of scholarship and teaching, the PhD oral exam typically takes place in the fall of the third year, though students who are prepared to do so may take it earlier. Students are examined in two areas, in an historical Period and either an additional historical Period or another recognized Field of study, such as critical theory. Since the Period and Field lists are intended to consolidate general mastery, they ought not to be narrowly tailored in line with particular thesis plans. Rather, lists should be designed in light of a student's long-term teaching and research goals.
Applications for the PhD oral as well as departmental exam lists and the names of those faculty designated to approve them are all available here. In most cases, the lists provided by the department are very flexible and intended to serve as guidelines. Under the guidance of faculty members in the area, students shape the lists according to their long-term research and teaching plans. Sample exam lists, provided by students who have recently taken their orals, are available on the GESA website.
Students must have completed all coursework and satisfied the foreign language requirement before they can take the oral exam.
About the Lists: Each list should consist of forty or so primary books or (where very long or short genres are involved) roughly the equivalent; and of some half dozen secondary works providing a variety of scholarly perspectives on the area in question. (Exceptions are Theory and Textual Studies lists, which each consist of forty works in all.) When Period and Field lists overlap, they should do so by no more than ten works. For students who elect to take two Period exams, these secondary readings must include titles devoted to literary-historical principles of canon-formation and periodization. No overlap is permitted in the case of two Period exams. Coverage of the examination area should be broad: for a Period exam the salient genres should be represented, with due regard for chronological distribution; for a Field exam the choice of titles should illustrate the field’s extent, touching on its limits and spanning its history. Titles should be chosen that represent important developments within the area, since it is these developments, not a mere aggregation of texts, that the exam is actually about.
About Preparation: In reading for orals, students should bear the big picture in mind. Exams are given in areas, and to conceive of an area requires spacious rather than tunnel vision. It goes without saying that students should bring to the exam a good working knowledge of the listed titles, including relevant bibliographical data and reception history. Photographic recall of the text is not at issue, but students may be expected to summarize a plot or an argument, to paraphrase a poem or a major speech. Still, the reproduction of such details should be tied to the overall purpose of identifying an area’s chief landmarks, definitive (or wavering) borders, and major changes over time. The student should come to the exam ready to share new ideas that have arisen in the course of independent reading, while also knowing what commonplaces inform advanced study of the area and how new notions might be brought to bear upon them. A successful exam should demonstrate a candidate’s readiness to join the larger conversation of which humanities scholarship consists.
Do, then, read intensively and searchingly the titles on your list. But don’t fail to correlate what you read with other titles on the list, and beyond these with other works you know of even though you haven’t contracted to master them. What within the exam area does this or that work on the list stand for? Do construct, out of the works on the list, modular links and brief narratives that lead from work to work, from literature to culture and back again. But don’t, once the exam is underway, allow your prepared notions to keep you from hearing what an examiner actually asks. Do by all means arrange a pre-exam meeting with an assigned examiner, especially if coursework has not previously brought the two of you together. But don’t make the mistake of narrowing your studies on some perception of what a given examiner is likely to ask. His or her mandate is not to pursue a particular agenda but simply to see how much a few brief minutes will let you say, and how well, about an area of the discipline you’ve chosen as a specialty.
About the Timing: During the second year, consult the posted orals lists and give serious consideration to your two exam areas. Consult with faculty in these areas about what shape your lists will take, and with faculty input devise preliminary lists in both of your areas. By May 1 of your second year, submit to the Grad Office the orals form proposing your two exam areas. Over the summer before your third year, read deeply in your preliminary lists. As the fall semester begins, retrieve your orals application form from the Grad Office, consult further with faculty members, making any modifications in the lists you deem necessary, and obtain a faculty signature of approval for each list. By September 15 of the third year, submit the form and signed lists for final approval by the DGS. Examiners will be then assigned and an exam date set for later in the fall. The Dissertation Seminar occupies the spring semester, and every effort should be made to take the oral exams before the seminar begins in January. Students who are prepared and have passed all necessary requirements (that is, who have completed their coursework and passed their language exams) may take their oral exams in advance of the timing described above.