The First-Year Ph.D. Experience: Language Exams

This blog marks the first of a series Cesar Soto and I are collaborating on highlighting “The First-Year Ph.D. Experience.” In doing so, we’ll be honestly exploring what we have learned–and are in the process of learning–as beginning Ph.D. students in Romantic studies. In documenting our experiences, we hope to begin creating an archive for subsequent students to utilize in making the transition to the doctoral level as smooth and enjoyable as possible. In addition, since César and myself have entered with M.A. degrees, we would very much like to invite comments from those who gone directly from the B.A. to the Ph.D. While my next post in this series will deal with what’s been less and more successful for me in terms of time management, César will be looking at navigating his experience in experimenting with theoretical frameworks. For now, the wine-press that is language requirements.

Intro: While they vary greatly by department, language reading exams (or coursework) may seem like imposing milestones to many incoming and continuing doctoral students’ minds. In all cases, however, moving past these requirements as efficiently as possible marks a good point of departure for further work. As someone who began their graduate work not having yet studied either language required of them–but having since passed a French reading exam and begun work on German for reading knowledge–I thought it would be helpful to develop a post detailing how I’ve gone about fulfilling this requirement. Though, I’m equally interested in hearing how other romanticists have worked through language study–particularly those who work both on literature and art of the continent (or elsewhere!).

Don’t Wait / Study Early, Study Often: It goes without saying, but it is helpful to know at least prior to the summer before beginning a program what the language requirements are. In my experience, those few months before starting represent a good opportunity to drill the knowledge necessary to produce a strong working translation of a critical text, as required. Working through flashcards in between reading selected articles is to my mind the most effective way to go about language study. But who wants to do this when there’s compelling and more immediately rewarding coursework to be done?

Devise a Strategy & Stick to It: In June 2010 before starting at Oregon, I picked up a used copy of a standard French for Reading Knowledge textbook. From there, I distilled the salient rules of grammar, syntax, morphology, and basic vocabulary into flashcards–going through one chapter per day, five days per week. This made what seemed to be an insurmountable task much more manageable. I repeated this strategy again when I started at Northwestern this year, and it worked. I’ve also started studying German similarly over the fall and winter terms. However, this isn’t to be didactic. Just to detail what worked for me. Of course, there are myriad ways to go about structuring your own strategy. Experiment, find what works for you, and go from there (and share it in the comments!).

Lean on Previous Language Study: When I was an undergraduate I did Italian and Ancient Greek, knowing I wanted likely to do a Ph.D. at some point, but not knowing that in Art History my language requirements are set. Of course, neither language counted directly towards my doctoral work. In the end, though, each gave me a framework for understanding how Romance and inflected languages work, respectively. I conceptualized learning to read French as re-filling in the frame Italian gave me. I’m doing the same thing now with German and Ancient Greek. The point is, use the structures of previous engagements with languages to move present studies forward.

During the Exam: While everything hinges upon how your language exams are evaluated, some of the best advice I’ve gotten is to avoid attempting to translate directly. Thinking through translation with reference to reading arguments is a good way to structure this. How I personally go about this is to: (1) skim the work, using the sentence structures and vocabulary in order to forge an idea of the text’s trajectory, (2) identify the argument that’s being made, and the premises that support it in the text, and (3) translate from there. Perhaps this is oversimplifying the matter, but, in September, for instance, I wasn’t looking to produce a translation that Mallarmé would approve of. I just wanted to fulfill a requirement, and move on.

It Will All Get Done, Even If It Takes Multiple Attempts: Most students I’ve known require multiple attempts to fulfill language requirements. In addition, continuing to drill flashcards and take language courses can also enrich one’s time in graduate school. This may end up being me with German. Who’s to say. In any event–optimistically stated–language study can be a way to get out of what Blake called “the same dull round,” and crucially engage with a much wider body of materials and scholarship than what would otherwise be possible. A wine-press, indeed–but a necessary one, in fact.

4 thoughts on “The First-Year Ph.D. Experience: Language Exams”

  1. Jake, this is great! I took an alternate route and decided to try my luck at taking a graduate-level French literature class and squeaked out an “A”. For me, the key was picking a course I was genuinely interested in and that was taught by a professor who had a keen interest in helping me succeed, when my French speaking skills and writing skills were a bit rusty. Indeed, the prof shared my goal of increasing my proficiency in reading French literature — contemporary as well as Romantic-era lit — and weighted my assignments accordingly. Though it was a ton of work, I’m still happy to have gone this route. One of my current dissertation chapters originated in French research/reading that I did for this class.

  2. Thanks, Kirstyn! That’s fantastic you were able to make your coursework so productive, in this regard. Also, I’d love it if I were able to substitute coursework for exams on the language front. Your thoughts also connect with a conversation I recently had with one of the 19th-c profs here on the advantages of becoming a “globalist” with the way things are heading in the academy. Connecting the necessity of language study with the passions of one’s research interests early on could make this milestone in one’s program more than just a hurdle. A diss. chapter coming out of a language course seems like a super way to facilitate this.

    Of course, we should all be so fortunate to work with professors in departments aside from our who are flexible enough at the graduate level to adjust the weighting and assignments of a course/seminar to help us realize our potential and open up directions to which we’d otherwise not have access.

  3. Depending on previous language study–great advice, Jacob! Makes me want to take another crack at French!

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