Literature Program

MA Comps: The Rationale

As its name implies, the MA Comprehensive Exam is designed to assess graduating MA-Lit students’ broad knowledge of literary form, literary history, and literary criticism and theory. The MA-Lit degree is conceived as a generalist degree, and the exam reflects that conception.

At the same time, the department recognizes that MA-Lit students do not share identical curricular experiences, and so students are invited to demonstrate their comprehensive grasp of literary study by building upon the content of the courses they have taken rather than upon an encyclopedic survey divorced from the community of the graduate classroom. This self-consciously subjective definition of comprehensiveness should inform students’ efforts at the construction of exam questions.

As stated above, students will submit four questions to the MA Comprehensive Exam Committee. Each question should emerge from one of the student’s already-completed or in-process graduate courses; hence, each student must exercise some judgment in choosing a slate of courses to use as the inspiration for a set of questions that best reflects that individual student’s comprehensive grasp of literary study.

Each question should build upon the set of readings and critical approaches featured in a course, while at the same time advertising the student’s mastery of the broader literary-historical, generic, and/or theoretical subfield(s) under which that course falls. Students are encouraged to think beyond a simple recycling of their seminar papers into exam questions/responses; the rhetorical demands of a 90-minute written exam are quite different from those that produce seminar papers, and among the consequences of these differences is that students who rely upon such simple intellectual recycling are bound to create more work for themselves, and less coherent responses for the examiners. Questions should be designed such that an ideal response to each should require specific references to several primary texts and to the critical conversations informing discussion of those texts and the issues raised in the seminar from which the question is conceived. The written responses will be expected to display a fluent and grammatically correct prose, organizational cogency making for clarity of presentation, an ability to analyze texts impressively, and a certain conceptual sophistication in framing arguments.

Responses should include precise and concise summary of both relevant primary and secondary texts, and a clear argument, logically arranged and lucidly articulated — all in 1000 or more carefully chosen words (likely 4+ pages of double-spaced text). Since students write their own questions, the Committee expects a level of preparation and forethought in excess of what might be envisioned if the content of the exam were not known so precisely up front.

After their questions have been approved, students are advised to plot out for themselves, in advance of the exam, the very best responses they can construct, to reread and, where necessary, revise and improve their responses, and to practice the process of writing for the exam. None of this previous writing and thinking can be brought in material form to the exam itself, of course, but the mental residue of this pre-examination preparation and organization of their ideas will result in better exam-day essays than simply taking the exam “cold.”

Next: Models of Best Practices