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Field Exam


For the purposes of the field examination, a “field” will emphasize at least one major genre in a historical period. Students must also demonstrate knowledge of the other important genres in that period and cover major critical and theoretical texts. As a rule of thumb you might consider the field covered by your exam to be that historical period in which you expect to get a job. After meeting these requirements, students may wish to add selected texts speaking to their specific interests in the field. It should be noted that these are the Department’s minimal expectations for the field list; some students may choose to expand the list to feature a category of literature or literary or cultural studies that cuts across period lines.

Though it should demonstrate readiness to undertake specific reading and research for the dissertation, preparation for the field exam should be distinguished from such reading and research, which will in most cases represent a further stage of specialization. Accordingly the field list is not a working bibliography for a particular dissertation project. Rather the main goal of the field exam is to evaluate your familiarity with the major texts--literary, critical, and theoretical--in your field. These are the texts that everyone in your field is expected to know, for example, the texts you may teach in an undergraduate survey course and those you should be able to discuss with your future colleagues and job interviewers.

Sample field lists are available in the Department office. You’ll find that constructing your own list is an exercise that will serve you well throughout your career. As you research your list, you’ll discover not only the major genres and texts in your field but the major critical debates associated with those texts. You’ll get ideas for creating undergraduate survey courses (for example the first or second half of a standard, two-semester survey of English and American literature or the introductory survey in your historical period) and upper level topics courses. The time you spend reading for your field exam will be among the most enjoyable of your career--your opportunity to immerse yourself in the major texts and debates of your field.

The examination itself is a two-hour oral examination conducted by three faculty members. After the examination the chair of the committee writes a letter of evaluation to the student, a copy of which is kept on file as the official record. The Registrar will be notified that the examination has been passed and will note the field on the student’s transcript. This examination may be retaken if necessary.

All changes to the field list must be approved in advance by the committee members. No changes may be announced at the field exam itself.

Sample Questions for Field Exams

Because the nature of field exams in the English department has shifted over the past few years (from an exam focused on the student's future dissertation area to a broader discussion of the student's field as a whole), the faculty would like to clarify what kinds of questions commonly arise during the exam, so that both students and faculty have a common understanding of the purpose and nature of the exam.  The following is a list generic questions often asked in field exams.  Of course, the precise direction of any particular field exam will be determined by the field of study, the student's particular list, the concerns of the individual faculty members involved, and the strengths of the student being examined.  Accordingly, this list is not intended to present a checklist of questions that will necessarily be covered during any particular exam.  Rather, it provides a general indication of the kinds of questions that often arise.  Students should be aware that not all questions may be asked in any particular exam and that, on occasion, other areas of interest may develop.  Students are encouraged to discuss this list with their examiners before their exam, so that all parties have a clear understanding of the priorities for each examination.  

- How do you define the literary historical period or periods covered by your list?
- Which do you consider the major authors and works in each period?
- Which are the important minor authors and why?
- Which works fit least comfortably into conventional descriptions of the period?
- What are the important aesthetic traditions and innovations in your period?
- What differences have you observed among the developments of major genres represented on your list?
- How do you interpret significant passages in important works from your list?
- How do you evaluate major critical interpretations of individual works on your list?
- What do you consider important debates in the scholarship in your field?
- How do you position yourself within critical debates in your field?
- What are your own preferred critical methods?  
- How do you use, or not, important concepts from the history of criticism?
- What questions do you want to ask and answer about major works on your list?
- What is your own canon of authors and works for your period?
- Which of the works on your list is most important to you and why?
- How would you teach a survey course or a special topic course in your field?