Best Practices Exams & Reading Lists

This guide was prepared by GEA Representatives Rachel Gevlin and Chris Huebner in collaboration with fellow graduate students with the intention of demystifying the process of assembling a committee and preparing for exams.

Initial Questions to Ask Advisor and Committee Members

  • What do you believe the reading year is for? Am I reading to gain comprehension of the field, to prepare for writing my first chapter, or to “explore” areas?
  • How often should we meet? How often should I meet with other committee members? When do I need to start thinking concretely about a dissertation topic?
  • What method/theory do you admire? What writers /critics do you like as a model? (This is a question that you could ask your advisor as well as a general question to consider yourself)

Constructing Lists

  • How should I build my lists? Should I start big and cut? Should I start small and add?
  • Is each list the domain of one advisor? Should my committee members collaborate to construct lists?
  • What should the balance of prose/poetry/visual media be (for applicable projects)?
  • How general/canonical should my lists be? How specific should they be to my own interests or to the specific “niche” of my project?
  • How closely should my minor lists relate to each other? How closely should my minor lists relate to my major list?
  • Should secondary texts be on primary lists (and vice versa)? If so, what should the ratio be?
  • Should minor lists have sections?
  • Do you have general formatting preferences for my lists? (Citations, numbering, ordering chronologically/alphabetically, etc.)

How to Handle Reading

  • How should I prioritize which texts to start reading? What are the 20 most important?
  • How closely should I be reading each text?
  • How should I read? For argument? For factual or historical background?
  • As I read through my lists, should I produce any writing?

Preparing for Exams

  • What is the procedure for oral exams? What should I prepare? Who starts? Will there be times when I will be asked to leave the room? Is it acceptable to take notes or record audio during the exam?
  • Who will draft the questions, and will I have any input in what they are?
  • How much ‘quizzing’ on small details (dates, character names, etc.) from the texts will there be? Am I likely to be asked questions about texts that aren’t on my lists?
  • What types of questions should I expect? i.e. Will I be asked to give a survey of a period? Will each question entail making an argument? Will I be expected to respond to specific critics?
  • How many questions will there be? Different advisors have different expectations, but the general outline (from the handbook) is the following: “The major exam is typically scheduled first. The format is usually to answer 2 or 3 questions from a choice of between 4 to 6 questions. For the minor exam, the format is usually to answer 1 or 2 on each minor field (2-4 in total) from between 4 and 6 questions.”
  • In my oral exam, should I have an answer prepared for every question that was asked on the written exams, or only for those that I answered in writing?
  • What kind of feedback can I expect after my exams are completed?