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Graduate First Year Oral Exam

First Year (50-Book) Oral Exam

Overview and Guidelines

The 50-Book Exam requires students to demonstrate knowledge of a group of texts that is diverse in terms of historical period; generic and formal categories; national and geographic origin; and racial, gendered, and sexual identifications. Students work with a committee of three faculty members to create a list of 50 books; at least 30 of these texts should be from outside the student’s designated area of specialization. 

This exam is intended to prepare the student to develop a command of literatures written in English that cover a wide scope across historical periods, literary genres, national and ethnic traditions. It should also give students the opportunity to draw on their course work and integrate the different elements of the first-year curriculum. 

The student will select fifty texts that he or she will organize into three broad rubrics according to Genre; Historical Period; and Theme or Theory. Each topic should provide a framework to structure the reading with texts that speak to one another. Each of the three rubrics should include one or two critical, theoretical, or historical texts (books or articles). All or most of the works from the period chosen by the student should be included in the Historical Period list (i.e., not in the Genre or Theme/Theory lists) to prevent that period's overrepresentation in the exam as a whole; no more than 20 texts from that period should appear on the full list.

Each student will work with an exam committee chair to develop topics, compile the list and ensure this broad and balanced coverage. The student will select a total of 50 texts, at least 35 from the department list (available at The choices should together demonstrate a broad range of historical periods, literary genres, and a diverse group of writers in terms of gender, national, and ethnic literatures. The final topics and lists must be approved by the committee chair and the Graduate Executive Committee. 

Three rubrics: 
A. Genre: At every stage of its history, literary studies has asked whether works of literature can and should be classified into distinct kinds, types, and forms. This rubric is an opportunity for students to enter that conversation by considering a recognizable genre or mode in the context of its development across different periods, places, languages, and/ or cultures. Topics may as broadly framed as drama, epic, romance, novel, or poetry. They may also be more specific, such as tragedy, comedy, lyric, pastoral, autobiography, melodrama, elegy, travel writing, naturalism, noir, the gothic, science fiction, and utopia. In every case, the rubric should be developed in a way that will allow the examinee to address the chosen topic in specific and general ways, paying attention to the formal character of the genre or mode at a particular place and time and to the changes that it undergoes as it evolves. 

B. Historical Period: This framework invites students to explore the contours of a major literary-historical period, to understand how literary works are embedded in historical contexts. The period may be designated by historiography (seventeenth century, turn of the twentieth century), or literary movements (age of romanticism, modernism). The list of reading for this framework should include a diversity of genres and authors, and when useful, a transatlantic or transnational perspective. The rubrics should follow recognized periods, though these may be as broad as a long century or as narrow as several decades. 

C. Theme or Theory: This is the broadest category with the most leeway for the student to develop a specific interest. The thematic or theoretical issue should be applicable across time periods, genres, and national traditions. The topic should be focused enough to be easily understood and capacious enough to include a variety of texts across time periods and genres. Some thematic suggestions: literature and law, nature, representation of labor, war and literature, sexuality, gender, coming of age, slavery, figures of monstrosity, the body in pain, memory, empire. A theoretical concept should provide an optic or set of questions through which to interpret a variety of texts. A student may draw on notions that have been defined --or refined-- by specific thinkers, or a topic addressed by a variety of theorists to be used as theoretical or thematic handles. One might select a specific critical movement e.g. Marxism, psychoanalysis, queer theory--or a concept: e.g. mimesis, hegemony, realism, pragmatism, power, racialization, the performative, subjectivity, orientalism, mourning, epistemology of the closet, bio-power, desire, the uncanny. 


Late February. Students should select a designated committee member and, with that person’s permission, send the Grad Chair his/her name. The chair and the third committee member will be assigned in order to assure that it includes members from a range of fields.

Mid March. Students will be notified of the committee chair and third member. Students should work with the full committee to determine the contents of the lists.

Mid April. The reading lists are due to the Graduate Executive Committee. Works from departmental list should be marked, and lists should be approved by the exam committee chair prior to submission. The GEC will read and return with comments. 

Early May. Required revisions due to the GEC.

Late August (day before Fall classes begin): The oral exam takes place. The two-hour exam will consist of a 10-minute oral presentation by the student to be followed by a discussion of texts within the three rubrics. Immediately after the exam, the committee will go over the exam with the student. In addition, the chair of the committee will submit a written report and a grade (Pass or Fail) to the Graduate Chair by September 5.  

Should a student fail the 50-book exam, he or she is allowed to retake the exam with a new committee assigned by the Graduate Chair in consultation with the GEC. The second exam must be scheduled no later than one semester after the original exam (that is, by the first week of the following semester), with a deadline to be set by the Graduate Chair in consultation with the GEC. If the student does not pass this second exam, he or she must be dropped from the program at the end of the year. The student may graduate with a Masters Degree provided all MA requirements have been met.