Thoughts on Practices for Comprehensive Orals

A few weeks ago, a Ph.D. student at Nebraska shared the reading list for his (or her, to maintain anonymity) comprehensive examination, the third of four hurdles that almost all Ph.D. students in departments of English must overcome (the four being course work, language proficiency, comprehensive orals, dissertation). Although his or hers was a customized list, I was struck by the difference in approach at the University of Virginia (UVa) and the University of Nebraska (UNL).

At UVa, oral exams had to be passed before one could enroll in the dissertation seminar, where one would prepare and refine a prospectus. I was encouraged–nay, exhorted–to ensure that my reading list could withstand the scrutiny of almost any scholar in English literature, as its purpose was to ensure that I could carry on an intelligent conversation with other scholars (on the assumption that our past training would include some overlapping texts). While any scholar could point out omissions from a necessarily selective list of the equivalent of 30 to 40 novel-length works, the list preparer should be able to offer a rationale for inclusion and exclusion. The exhortation was no mere rhetorical exercise: the intellectually intimidating (though nice and altogether generous) chair of graduate studies at the time, Professor Chip Tucker, grilled me after I presented my list. That practice (of having to undergo the grilling of the graduate chair) was of brief duration in the department. What Professor Tucker intended (I think) as an invitation to talk intelligently about the list was understood by Ph.D. students as a formidable barrier that usurped the authority of advisers–the practice soon ended.

UVa offered three modes for reading lists: historical period, genre, custom. The historical period was required, and one could choose a previously recognized genre (epic, novel, lyric, etc.) or propose a custom list that departed from the “genre” formulation. For a custom list, one had to provide a written rationale for the choices, whereas one had only to provide oral assurance of one’s understanding of the historical period rationale for the required list. My lists, including my custom list in Bibliography, Textual Editing, and Electronic Texts, survive online on my CLIR portfolio page (too busy to link now).

In contrast, at UNL, I find a radically different process, which tends, I think, to use every step to prime the student for dissertation writing. The reader will please not hold me to exact account, as my familiarity with UNL process derives from a few chats with students from two different departments. The first marked difference is that students prepare a dissertation prospectus during their first year in the Ph.D. program. This prospectus, which I assume will influence course work, though not formally, also informs the comprehensive orals reading list. As compared with UVa, these lists at UNL tend to be comparatively more rich in both canonical works of criticism (for the historical period or the genre) and specific criticism.

Whereas I would never have thought of including E. Bruce Kirkham’s Building of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on my UVa historical period reading list–because one’s historical period is limited to at most a handful of monumental field surveys (Matthiessen, Fiedler, etc. in American literature)–I think that I could have included it under the UNL regime. The prospectus (prepared beforehand) would have provided an implicit rationale at UNL, whereas the emphasis on broad field survey (prospectus not yet prepared at UVa) would have almost certainly have nixed it. Put otherwise, UVa advisers would have looked askance a field survey that seemed to clearly to point toward a dissertation plan. You don’t do the reading for your dissertation as your orals list. Instead, you select the field of scholars for your dissertation after you’ve completed the broad survey and passed the orals exam. Scholars at UNL are encouraged, in contrast, to be looking forward to the dissertation that they might write.

One disadvantage of the UVA system is that the post-orals/pre-prospectus period is a time of goofy indecision. You go into orals expecting to be asked to talk about any of 60 works in two broad fields, and you end up providing answers to about five questions that invite broad answers. Unfriendly examiners might grill you on finer points of individual texts, but I only had one such question.

If only I had thought to say that Moby Dick’s subject is man’s confrontation with hostile nature, my examiner would have had to come up with another objection.

A second disadvantage is that orals do little to prepare one to write a dissertation, so my dissertation is weak at placing itself within the broader sweep of literary and cultural studies at the present moment, a weakness compounded by my decision to edit a loooooong text, and to finish on a fast schedule rather than making a career out of graduate school.

With my UVa background, I would conceivably have been doomed had I accepted a tenure-track position on my way out–not a choice available to me!–because I did not have the broad range of field reading that I could have completed in a program like UNL’s. The recognition of that fact (as well as procrastination or unavoidable difficulties) led many students at UVa to stretch out their Ph.D. to sixth, seventh, or eighth years. As someone who escaped, I will merely sigh over the department’s Faustian offer for graduate students–the apparent offer of intellectual enrichment now and future rewards–against the Marxist reality that you are in the teaching proletariat and shall remain there until you complete your degree, at which point it is likely you will have to accept continuing membership in the proletariat of visiting instructorships or short-term fellowships. Not everyone gets stuck–every graduate program has stars–but it’s a depressingly familiar course for many. My mirage of intellectual rewards has just turned to what seems a pleasing reality, so my bitterness is expected to fade–but keep your own counsel.

Where was I? The reading lists and orals at UNL seem to prepare one to write a dissertation and book that are deeply engaged in the current moment of critical thought. At UVa, the reading lists cannot possibly serve that purpose because of the way it is timed. The reading and research for the dissertation will have to serve. So my postdoctoral fellowship has been spent in part reading criticism in my field so that I can join conversations with greater confidence. I don’t, on initial thought, believe that one method is significantly better than the other, but I do believe that the two models represent significantly different conceptions for the purposes of reading lists and comprehensive oral exams, which should be weighed carefully among the relative merits of individual programs.

I think that the broad field surveys (without a particular focus on intended dissertation research) will enrich my teaching, but they weakened the contemporary rhetorical relevance of the dissertation for students of American literature. I could have solved that problem by spending another year or two reading and writing (a choice that is altogether reasonable if one has time and money). On the other hand, my custom orals list and a long fascination with textual scholarship make those parts of my dissertation stronger, though I don’t think the orals list was consciously crafted to focus my research. I had read widely in textual scholarship for three years before crafting my list, and I took the opportunity to expand into areas in which I was not broadly familiar.

The observations on the discrepancy between the UVa and UNL practice respond tangentially to the fact that I work through Eric Sundquist’s monumental To Wake the Nations now–in partial response to reader comments on a submitted essay–rather than when I should have, before or while writing the dissertation. I know now that I could have benefited immensely from Sundquist’s work while writing the dissertation, but I did not know it then.

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