Orals Information

MA Oral

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.

PhD Oral

During the second year, consult the posted orals lists and give serious consideration to your two exam areas. Beginning no later than January of the second year, confer with faculty in these areas about what shape your lists will take, and with faculty input finalize lists in each of your proposed areas. By May 10 of your second year, submit to the Grad Office the orals form proposing your two exam areas and your lists for both areas. Over the summer before your third year, read deeply in your lists. If necessary, revisions may be made to the reading lists by retrieving your original form from the graduate office, revising the form and lists, and securing new signatures. Any revisions to the lists must be complete by August 1, after which time examiners will be assigned and exam dates set. The deadline for taking exams is October 30 of the third year. Following successful completion of the exam, candidates should devote their attention to thinking, reading, and research toward the dissertation prospectus. Students who are prepared and have passed all necessary requirements (that is, who have completed their coursework and passed their language exams) are encouraged to take their oral exams in advance of the timing described above. 

Oral exams are designed to make doctoral candidates professionally conversant with two separate areas of scholarship and teaching. Students are examined in two areas, in a 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 are all available here. ln most cases, the lists provided by the department are very flexible and intended to serve as guidelines. Students are encouraged to seek the guidance of several faculty members in the area as they work to shape lists that suit their own long-term research and teaching plans. In consultation with faculty, students should include significant recent secondary works in their orals lists, even when these works are not represented on the master lists. “Recent” could be defined as within the last decade or at most two decades. Up to four of the six secondary works included on all orals lists (with the exception of the Theory and Textual Studies lists, which are differently structured) may be recent works not included on the department’s master lists. After settling on a draft list, students should seek approval of the list from the faculty member designated as current list approver in the area; follow the link at the bottom of the orals list page.
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. Students may bring lists with them to the exam.
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.