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Ph.D. Comprehensive Examination

Examination for Literature

The Ph.D. examination consists of two written sections and a subsequent defense of the dissertation prospectus. The written sections are take-home exams written over a weekend. For doctoral candidates in literature, the defense of the dissertation prospectus will follow no later than one semester after written exams have been passed. The examinations are based on reading lists for each section designed by the examining committee in consultation with the student. Questions will be predicated on the lists; no additional research will be expected in preparation for the exams. In the take-home portions of the exams, the examining committee will stipulate an appropriate length for each question.

Period of Specialization Section

The period of specialization section establishes the candidate’s teaching competence in a period of literary history. By means of this exam, the candidate establishes his or her ability to teach an undergraduate survey course in the chosen period. With this in mind, the examining committee and the student should draft a reading list that accurately represents the period. It should cover all major genres, phases, or movements within the period, and it should include those authors judged to be central to the period’s development and to its present interpretation. The department has designated, for purposes of the exam, the following periods of literary history:

British Literature
  • Medieval (through 15th century)
  • Renaissance
  • Late 17th and 18th Century
  • 18th Century
  • Early 20th Century (through WWII)
  • Later 20th (post WWII) and early 21st Centuries
  • Post-Colonial (20th and 21st Centuries)
American Literature
  • 17th and 18th Centuries
  • 19th Century
  • Early 20th Century (through WWII)
  • Later 20th (post WWII) and early 21st Centuries

If the student wishes to work in a more narrowly circumscribed period, he or she must present a rationale for the narrowing, which must be approved by the examining committee.

Tradition Section

The tradition section requires that students select a topic (a literary theme, cultural phenomenon, a genre, etc.) and, in consultation with their committee, create a list of works relating to this topic. This list must include works outside the period of specialization that provide a broader historical context for the student’s dissertation. The reading list for this section should include works from at least two periods (as defined for the period of specialization section of the exam) beyond the student’s period of specialization. These two periods need not be contiguous to one another or to the period of specialization. For example, a student planning to write a dissertation on Victorian Arthurianism might construct a tradition list that includes Medieval or Renaissance works.

Examination for Creative Writing

Creative writing students will write the period of specialization and tradition sections of the exam as described above. Instead of doing the dissertation prospectus defense section of the examination, creative writing students will present a critical essay analyzing a topic within the period of specialization that is particularly relevant to the student’s own creative practice.

This essay, roughly 30-40 pages long, will serve as an introduction to the creative dissertation. The introductory critical essay should seek to develop a context of ideas and/or literary history in which the candidate’s writing can be usefully considered. This introductory critical essay clearly has a personal import for the student, and the essay’s tone may well reflect this fact. Nonetheless, the essay’s methods should be scholarly and critical. The essay will be defended orally as part of the student’s dissertation defense.

Scheduling and Preparing the Comprehensive Examination

Note: Some of these protocols do not apply to Rhetoric & Composition exams. For those protocols, see the description in the next section.

The department will hold exams on the first weekend in September after the Labor Day holiday, and doctoral students will typically take them in their fourth year. Exceptions will be made for students who are prepared early and desire to take the exam in the spring of their third year. When it is necessary to schedule a spring exam, it will be given on a weekend in early April. These are the only two times at which exams can be scheduled, although conflict with religious holidays will be taken into consideration.

Once scheduled, the department does not typically allow students to postpone their exam. Catastrophic family emergency or serious illness are exceptions, and in these cases the department will reschedule the exam for the next available date (September or April). If the Chair of the exam committee strongly believes that a student is so unprepared he or she will very likely fail, the Chair may discuss the possibility of postponement with the Director of Graduate Studies.

Reading Lists

The student and committee should finalize a list of readings of primary and secondary texts by early May of the second year (for a September exam in the fourth year), or by early January of the second year (for an April exam in the third year). The list constitutes a “contract” between examinee and examiners, determining the scope of knowledge for which the student assumes responsibility. Once the list is finalized, the student and the committee members should sign it, and the student should bring a copy to Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) to be placed in the student’s file.

Preparing the exam: As noted above, the department requires that the exam have two sections: 1) a specialization in a historical period and 2) a tradition in a topic or genre selected by the student. The committee formulates the individual exam questions based on the reading list. Typically, exams include three or four questions in each of the required sections, and the student responds to two questions from each section, for a total of four essays. Expected length for the combined responses has typically been between 25 and 40 pages, but again the committee makes this determination. The committee should finalize the exam questions a full week ahead of the exam. When the exam is ready, the committee forwards it to the DGS.

The exam weekend: On the Friday morning (before noon) of the exam weekend, the Director of Graduate Studies will email the exam to the student. The student must email his or her responses to the Director by 8 a.m. the following Monday. A late submission may give the department grounds to fail the exam summarily. During the course of the exam weekend, the student should not contact any member of the exam committee, but should direct questions about instructions to the DGS, who will be accessible by phone and email.

The exam weekend: On the Friday morning (before noon) of the exam weekend, the Director of Graduate Studies will email the exam to the student. The student must email his or her responses to the Director by 8 a.m. the following Monday. A late submission may give the department grounds to fail the exam summarily. During the course of the exam weekend, the student should not contact any member of the exam committee, but should direct questions about instructions to the DGS, who will be accessible by phone and email.

Exam evaluation: The DGS will forward the student’s exam responses to the members of the committee. The committee must pass or fail the exam within one week of its submission. The committee should also include some evaluative comments along with its decision. Typically the committee Chair consolidates the comments of the other members into a one- to three-paragraph evaluation and shares it with the student. If the committee deems the exam failing, the student will have one opportunity to take the exam again during the next examination cycle.

Schedule Summary

For Fall Exam of 4th Year
  • Start forming list with committee—Second year, early Spring term
  • Finalize list; bring signed copy to DGS—Early May
  • Take exam—September of 4th year, weekend after Labor Day
  • Committee sends evaluation to DGS—1 week later
For Spring Exam of 3rd Year
  • Start forming list with committee—Second year, early Fall term
  • Finalize list; bring signed copy to DGS—Early January
  • Take exam—3rd year, weekend in early April
  • Committee sends evaluation to DGS—1 week later

Comprehensive Exams in Rhetoric & Composition: Written

The Rhetoric & Composition Comprehensive Examination is composed of two parts: the written examination and an oral defense of the student’s dissertation prospectus. A student must pass both essays in order to advance to doctoral candidacy.

Part 1: Written Examination Questions

There are two distinct essays in this examination. Each is to range between 5,000-6,500 words (excluding the Works Cited) and must follow the most recent edition of either MLA or APA style. All essays should include the specific exam question at the beginning of the essay.

All students must complete the exam essays on their own. Collaborative writing, receiving feedback (e.g. from other students, from faculty, from a writing center tutor), and reading previous students’ exams all constitute cheating and will result in removal from the Rhetoric & Composition doctoral program. The Rhetoric faculty will schedule one meeting with exam students at the beginning of the exam period to give students an opportunity to ask questions about the exam.

Essay 1: Each student will be assigned a specific decade of a journal from the field and must carefully examine all of the volumes of this particular journal published during that decade. Starting with the earliest volumes of the decade assigned, the essay produced for this section of the exam traces a conversation, thread, or issue forward. The student might examine changes in the conversation over time, influences on the conversation, or its current status, among other things. The analysis of the conversation should also be contextualized within broader conversations in the field and in other exigencies.

Essay 2: Each student will be assigned a journal and carefully examine all of the volumes of this particular journal published during the last 10 years. The essay produced will be a meta-analysis of publication trends, changes, or genres of the journal over time. Or, a student may wish to examine who seems to get published in the journal, who the audience is for the journal, whether the journal has had an editorial change, and if so, what that indicates. A student could also consider issues, debates, emerging issues, what leads to responses, terms of debate, common ground, crash points, citation trends, and historical references. This list is not meant to be prescriptive or limiting, but rather suggestive and generative. As is the case with any analysis, exam writers need to have a clear focus to the exam and to explain what is important about what they notice, providing evidence to support their points.

Timeline

Students taking the written portion of the Rhetoric & Composition Comprehensive Exam will receive their specific questions (i.e. journal names) from the Chair of the Graduate Rhetoric Committee on the last day of classes in Spring semester of the second year of doctoral study. The completed exam essays are due to the Chair of the Graduate Rhetoric Committee on the first day of the following spring semester (e.g. January of the third year). The essays do not have to be written in any particular order, but they must be turned in together on the first day of spring semester. Exam results will be provided to students within four weeks.

Examination Results

A student will earn a score of Accept (Pass), Revise and Resubmit, or Reject (Fail) on the exams as a whole. A student who earns an Accept has passed the Written Examination and may begin the dissertation prospectus. A student who earns a Reject will not continue in the Rhetoric and Composition doctoral program. A student who earns a Revise and Resubmit will have four weeks to make the required revisions to the essay or essays. Results will be provided within four weeks for the resubmitted exam. The student must then earn a score of Accept on the resubmitted exam in order to remain in the Rhetoric & Composition doctoral program and advance to doctoral candidacy.

In the event that a student’s exams earn a Reject or do not earn an Accept upon resubmission, then the student may not continue in the Rhetoric & Composition doctoral program. The student would be permitted to continue as a teaching assistant for the remainder of the semester in which the exams were taken if the student continues to perform teaching duties satisfactorily. The student would also continue to receive a tuition waiver for the remainder of that semester.

After passing the Written Examination, all students are encouraged to first seek a dissertation director. Then, in consultation with the director, form a committee and begin work on the dissertation prospectus. The most current prospectus guidelines are also available from the Chair of the Graduate Rhetoric Committee.

Guidelines and FAQs for the Written Examination

The purpose of the exam is to demonstrate that you know how to find, analyze, and represent a scholarly conversation. Understanding how to do this is crucial to success in writing a dissertation or publishing an article. For this exam, we ask you to describe and synthesize conversations. We expect you to make a strong thesis around what you see in the journal. This is an analytical thesis, not an argumentative thesis. The outcome we are looking for is that you have demonstrated familiarity with two journals, with the historical depth of particular issues, and with scholarly conversations that you find in the journals.

In Essay 1, you are asked to choose a conversation, thread, or issue that is substantively represented in the journal. Your argument should be focused on a conversation that exists in the journal (not a critique of what should be there) and a synthesis of others’ arguments (not your own position on that issue). Maintain a roughly chronological frame, being careful to keep us oriented in time. For this question we would like you to include other scholarly work outside the journal that lends context to the thread or conversation that you are highlighting. It also may be appropriate to situate the conversation within larger societal issues, such as The Patriot Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, open admissions, Students Rights to Their Own Language, etc. Although you are asked to situate the issue/topic in other material, we want you to focus predominantly on work published in the journal itself.

Essay 2 this is different than Essay 1 in that we are asking here for a meta-analysis of the journal itself as a vehicle of scholarly work in the field. Consider the significance and implications of what you find. How does the journal’s mission constrain or provoke the conversations you see there?

Do we want more dates, tags? Yes. Tell us where you are chronologically in your essay as you go along. Give us dates: when in the journal’s history is X going on? We want guidance through the essay in the form of signposts, connections, and sense of the relationships among scholars’ arguments.

Do we want you to explain significant articles in depth? Yes. Readers should be able to follow the conversations whether or not they have read the particular articles.

Do we want you to pick topics using search engines? No. We want you to physically examine the journals, the tables of contents, the editor’s comments, and the front matter. We want you to get a contextual sense of the materiality and temporality of the journal. Keyword searches will not get you there.

Do we want you to see the exam as an opportunity for later publication? No. The format of this exam does not lend itself to publication. Writing the exam with the goal of publication will distract you from writing a successful exam. You may find, however, that the reading and synthesizing you do serves as a springboard for future research.

Part 2: Dissertation Prospectus

The prospectus should be no more than 7500 words, excluding the Works Cited, Working Bibliography, and IRB proposal (if applicable). The prospectus must be defended orally to the committee no later than week 7 in the semester following comprehensive exams (e.g. exams completed in January and prospectus defended by mid-October). The rhetorical task of the prospectus is to convince the committee that the student has conceptualized an achievable project with a scope that is appropriate to a dissertation and that the project will make an appropriate contribution to the field. The prospectus typically needs to make the rhetorical moves outlined below.

Cover Page

  • identifies the title of project
  • identifies committee members
  • lists relevant course work

Introduction

  • identifies the topic/problem under investigation
  • describes what is at stake for this particular topic/problem and makes the case that it is worth researching
  • articulates research question(s)
  • clarifies the scope of the project

Literature Review

  • identifies and discusses research and scholarship relevant to the project
  • articulates a useful theoretical framing for the project
  • makes clear to readers what is known and what we still need to know about this topic
  • expands and develops the argument from the introduction that this project will have value to the field and that the research questions are worth investigating

Methodology

  • describes what you hope to find or understand through the project
  • reiterates the research questions and makes the case that they are appropriate (in their scope and in their meaningfulness)
For Textual Projects
  • explains how the method will help to answer the research questions
  • justifies the use of the method and contextualizes it through existing literature
  • describes the research method in substantial detail, answering the following questions:
    • What kinds of texts will I use and how did I choose them? For example, secondary or primary texts, historical, theoretical, classroom descriptions? A historical project might focus on secondary historical work, archives, journals, visual media, or a combination.
    • How do I plan to approach these texts? For example, what am I focusing on in particular when I go through these texts? A theoretical project might focus on particular metaphors, world views, or limitations, for instance the absence of same-sex relations or implicit recognition of such through particular uses of language.
    • What is my theoretical lens? Am I looking through a post-human or Marxist lens, or the lens of transfer theory? Whose scholarship is grounding my theoretical approach—Barad, Berlin, Yancey, for instance? An examination of textbooks, for instance, might include a particular approach to the authority of knowledge, or construction of what knowledge means in a particular context. How is transfer theory, as defined by Yancey or Downs/Wardle, for instance, evident or absent in introductory chapters of current textbooks? Or how do current textbooks refer to new materialist objects as part of the writing process, perhaps without the authors realizing it?
For Empirical Projects

[For textual projects that include a smaller empirical project, address these moves as a smaller part of your larger methodology]

  • describes what you hope to find or understand through the project
  • reiterates the research questions and makes the case that they are appropriate (in their scope and in their meaningfulness)
  • describes the research method in substantial detail
    • participants
    • data to be collected
    • method of data analysis
  • explains how the method will help to answer the research questions
  • justifies the use of the method and contextualizes it through existing literature

Conclusion

  • provides an annotated chapter outline
  • offers a reasonable timeline for completing the work
  • briefly reiterates the importance of the topic/problem
  • briefly reiterates what the field stands to gain by learning more

Works Cited

Works explicitly cited in the prospectus in current MLA, APA, or Chicago style

Working Bibliography

A substantial list of the books and articles you anticipate reading and researching for your dissertation listed in current MLA, APA, or Chicago style

IRB Proposal (if applicable)

 

 

 

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