Advice: Five Scholars on Comprehensive Exams

Constructing comprehensive exam lists is no easy feat. A friend of mine compares the process to building a personalized obstacle course and then having to master it; after all, the texts that appear on your exams are texts that you have personally chosen. Another friend compares constructing exam lists to building a wish list; here are all the books and articles that I wish I had time to read (or re-read) earlier in my career. Whether you view exam lists as friends or foes, one thing remains certain: you must be aware of yourself as a scholar.

Several weeks ago, I read Renee Harris’ thoughtful how-to on running the comprehensive exams gauntlet. Harris’ article offered the very comforting reminder that even while we construct (and take) these personalized exams, we are never alone in the process. Beyond our supportive departments, committees, and mentors, there are always other people going through similar neuroses, struggles, and victories. And, consequently, there is a vast group of established scholars who have already gone through them.

In an effort to extend this conversation of how to approach such a daunting task, I’ve asked five established scholars across North America about their experiences taking and preparing for exams. What did they wish that they had known? What were they glad that they already knew? Below are their words of wisdom:

Dr. Brandy Schillace, Case Western Reserve University

I was standing in the stairwell, waiting to be called up to the defense. It’s hard to capture the tumult of emotion and anxiety… I felt I had dueling octopi in my stomach. I was terrified I’d say the wrong thing, or nothing at all in a fit of brain freeze. Then I remembered something. I’m Anglican, and coming from my studies of theology, I suddenly remembered the early charge that disciples ‘not worry’ about what they would say in advance. When the time came to speak, speak they would.

In that moment before defense, we are  ‘disciples’ of English studies and about to stand trial. But remember–we are also masters. We know our subject better than anyone, and possibly even as well as some on our committee. They are not judges; they are peers. We are not going to prove we belong; we are going to show we’ve belonged all the time.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I climbed the stairs… And I entered the room as a colleague. That’s what you are–colleagues in the making. Don’t be paralyzed by the exam. Don’t be cocky, either, but just remember: this is our job, it’s what we do. When the time comes to defend, defend you shall.

(Though I confess, praying never hurts)

Dr. Anne Stiles, Saint Louis University

1. Study several contiguous time periods. When I took my exams, I decided to focus on the Victorian period and the 18th century, but skipped the Romantic era. I definitely regretted it afterwards, especially since many jobs in my field are geared toward the “long nineteenth century.” If you’re studying two different time periods separated by a decade or more, remember that the meat in the middle of the sandwich is important, too!

2. Always carry around a book with you in case you have a few spare minutes for reading (while waiting in lines, for ex.).

3. Remember to read secondary criticism on the primary works you read, even if you’re not required to do so. This secondary criticism can help you tie together and better understand the works on your list, so you have more to say about them.

Dr. Richard Menke, University of Georgia

One of the questions I’m asked most frequently by students approaching their comps is whether they should “focus on breadth or on depth” in their preparation and in their exam answers themselves. My answer may sound glib and unhelpful, but it’s really intended to be neither of these: “Both.” What I mean is that they should be ready to frame their deep, specific answers in terms of a broad sense of genre, history, context, ideology (and so forth). But they should also make sure that when they find themselves articulating their broad understanding of the field, they offer a sense of how they could add details to flesh out and add nuance to their responses.

This dual focus can help students offer successful exam responses that set up useful follow-up questions, since examiners will often pick up on these suggestions in an oral exam, for instance. But I’m convinced that it can also do something more. Rarely in our careers do any of us have the chance (or the obligation) to read extensively and promiscuously across our fields, as we are asked to do for our exams. So preparation for the comprehensive exams represents a chance to charge your intellectual batteries in a special way, to gather some of the knowledge, the theories, and the hunches that can help propel years of thought. As students are studying for their exams, they should work from specific texts and problems, to patterns that link them into networks of relationship, to larger themes and ideas. They should see their own knowledge and understanding in relation to the shape of their field, and should be ready to articulate the significance of their ideas by discussing their connections to these wider intellectual contexts. After all, that’s just what they’ll need to do in their own scholarship, as they present their deep research and argue for the breadth of its intellectual significance.

Dr. Anne Mellor, UCLA

The only suggestion I have is to know everything that is in my anthology, Mellor and Matlak, BRITISH LITERATURE 1780-1830. That will familiarize you both with the canonical and the newly-added-to-the-canon texts, as well as their historical contexts.

Dr. David Sigler, University of Idaho

The exam year is the best experience you’ll ever have in this profession, and probably in your life. If the listmaking and reading and examining feel traumatic to you or even merely stressful, be comforted to know that this is the least traumatic phase of your whole long career to follow, and that the memory of its pleasures will compensate you during the decades of anxiety to come. Just by doing all that reading all day every day for about ten months, and reading super-carefully so as to file away all of the details, you really do become an expert in the field and begin making connections, text to text, that spark a million ideas. Everything begins to relate to everything else, like you’re Coleridge or something. I read for months with a kitten, Eloise, often aloud—and when I see Eloise today, ten years later, we both know that we read a whole lot of stuff, very intensively, together. It’s solidarity and belonging one is building, then. Reading for the exams was, no doubt, the best intellectual experience I’ve ever had.

Making the lists is like making a mixtape, and thus when they’re poorly constructed one’s deficiencies are exposed. Mixtapes were a technology of the late twentieth century. I worry sometimes that scholars of the most recent generation are at a considerable disadvantage in the list-making, having never made anything but playlists. You want to show that you appreciate some delightful neglected corners of your field and also aren’t afraid of the greatest hits. Everything should be selected to demonstrate one’s immaculate and capacious taste. I had all kinds of Joanna Southcott on there, and Mary Prince, and The Writings of the Luddites, and the Marquis de Sade, and some early Felicia Hemans from before she sold out (The Domestic Affections). I went with The Last Man instead of Frankenstein like it was no big deal. I know that none of those are obscure at all, but it felt that way to me at the time because my frame of reference was expanding so quickly. One covers a lot of ground and gets smarter. The experience was exhilarating for me, and it always is. My point is that mine was a really great Romanticism list, and I’m not sure anyone else really appreciated it properly. My advice, if you’re doing it now, would be to use an earlier, shorter version of The Prelude, as early and short as possible, because that’s a lot of time-spots to remember for ten months. Don’t put Night Thoughts or Political Justice on there, either—seriously just read them after your exams, or during your exam year on your own time if you must. You don’t want to be pressed on those hundreds of details. Finally, don’t argue with the DGS when s/he insists that you include Manfred on your list—it’s simply so delightful that you should definitely include it, even if you’ve already got Don Juan and Beppo on there—it’s not a burden to include it, I promise, and the arguing just makes you seem timid and unimaginative. I know you know that already.


One thought on “Advice: Five Scholars on Comprehensive Exams”

  1. Dr. Mellor’s advice is tried and true! I used her “big red book” for my minor field, and it was absolutely perfect! It seems almost made specifically for comps!
    And, I think Dr. Sigler’s advice to remember the pleasure of the exam process should not be underestimated. Two years later, I look back on exams with so much pride and fondness, even though it seemed scary at the time. And, I use my exam notes constantly for teaching/researching!

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