The first qualifying exam is designed to test the student’s familiarity with a range of literature at once various enough to encourage breadth of learning and focused enough to allow for the demonstration of intellectual grasp. Students are expected to complement their knowledge of individual works with a sense of broader historical, cultural, and intellectual contexts as well as with the ability to apply the kinds of critical tools used by professional scholars today. For the purposes of the exam, the spectrum of literature written in English is broken up into thirteen fields as specified in Section 3.2. Each field has its own reading list, and is supervised by its own faculty group in consultation with student representatives (chosen from veterans of the exam). Students choose three of these thirteen fields on which to be tested, and prepare for the exam by studying the appropriate reading lists along with supplementary historical, critical, or theoretical materials. It should be emphasized that students will be expected not only to be familiar with the significant details of the works but also to be able to think critically and coherently about them. The presumption of the department is that any student accepted into its graduate program should be able, with necessary preparation, to pass the first qualifying exam satisfactorily and move ahead to advanced stages of graduate study.
The first qualifying exam is administered once a year during the spring quarter, usually during exam period. Students in both the MA/PhD and the PhD programs must take the exam no later than the end of their sixth quarter after fulfilling course, distribution, and language requirements as specified in Sections 3.1 to 3.3 and 4.1 to 4.3. By the end of the quarter before the exam (winter quarter of the second year), students must register with the Staff Graduate Advisor the three fields on which they wish to be examined. No switches in fields will then be allowed.
The first qualifying examination is an oral exam two hours in length (followed by post-exam consultation with faculty of 20-30 minutes). Students will be examined in three fields of their choice. Each field will be represented by one faculty member affiliated with that field. Each field is addressed for 40 minutes during the exam. The type of questioning will vary between questions designed to elicit a brief response and those inviting a longer discussion; the proportion is to be left to each committee's discretion, on the understanding that departmental policy mandates a combination of both for each field examiner. Fields will usually be examined sequentially, but the exam order should be decided between the student and the faculty examiner the student has designated as “Chair” of his or her exam.
Candidates should be advised that the first qualifying examination is not simply the culmination of coursework but a separate challenge. Graduate seminars will help to prepare students for the exam by developing their literary sophistication and their detailed knowledge of particular subjects, but seminars alone are unlikely to provide the necessary amplitude of coverage; nor should the student choose seminars simply with coverage in mind. The process of independent reading for the first qualifying exam should be started as early as possible in a candidate’s career.
Exam preparation should include:
- Study of the works on the appropriate reading lists.
- A systematic survey of literary history and relevant aspects of intellectual, cultural, and social history with focus on the student’s intended exam fields but also with some attention to periods before, between, and after those fields (e.g., a review of the introductory sections of the Norton Anthology of English Literature and the Norton Anthology of American Literature).
- Considerable exposure to critical theory and practice of the last decades (e.g., perusal of 20th Century Literary Criticism, ed. David Lodge; Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 2nd edition, ed. Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer) as well as to major critical developments within the student’s intended fields (e.g., perusal of Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies, ed. Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn).
- Frequent consultation of reference works (e.g., the latest editions of A Glossary of Literary Terms by M.H. Abrams, the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, and A Handbook of Literature by Holman, Thrall, and Hibbard).
- Students electing one or more of the non- or trans-period fields (reading lists) should be sure to pay some attention to the historical development(s) of the field as a whole in relation to other literary, intellectual, and cultural developments.
- Questions about particular field-exams or field reading lists may be directed to the examiner of the relevant field group. Appropriate questions, for example, might have to do with finding texts, clarifying ambiguities in the assigned readings, seeking advice on supplementary readings, etc. (Of course, students are always free to consult individual faculty members about more substantive, intellectual matters.) Inappropriate questions would be those that place faculty members in the position of predicting what materials or kinds of questions will be emphasized in that year’s exam.
- In addition to the above steps, many students in the past have found it useful to form reading groups among themselves.
Immediately following the two hours of examination, the examiners will confer together (without the student) and assign a grade for the examination: Clear Pass means passing all three areas; Low Pass requires the examination committee to meet with Graduate Advisor and department Chair to decide whether the student progresses in the program or leaves with or without an M.A.; No pass requires the department Chair and Graduate Advisor to review the academic record to decide, in consultation with Graduate Division, whether or not the student continues in the program. The student will then return and the exam committee will inform the student of the outcome. A paragraph of evaluation commenting on the student’s performance, including comments on specific strengths and weakness of the exam, will be composed by the examination chair and forwarded to the Graduate Committee. This paragraph will be made available to the student (usually within a week or two) as part of a letter from the Graduate Advisor.
If a student is deemed to have failed the exam, he or she will have the opportunity to be re-examined on all or part of the material. This may, but need not, be delayed until the next exam period. The full examining committee will be convened for the retake.
If the student is deemed to have again performed inadequately on the exam after taking it a second time, the chair of the examining committee will meet with the Department Chair as well as the Graduate Advisor to decide the student's status in the program. Both the oral examination and the seminar record will be considered at this time. If both the Department Chair and Graduate Advisor concur with the examining committee's evaluation, Graduate Division will be notified that the student's record should be reviewed and considered for the purposes of requesting that the student leave the program, with or without an M.A.
Results of the exam are reported to the student in a confidential letter from the Graduate Advisor. Students who have questions about the results of their exam are welcome to consult the examining committee members and/or the Graduate Advisor.