Introduction to the Orals

The second Qualifying Exam, or as it is commonly referred to, the Orals, is a more personal exam than any you may have encountered thus far. Your Orals committee – three professors chosen by you – will each examine you for a period of forty minutes on a list of texts, again chosen by you. It might sound daunting, but it can be a stimulating and yes, enjoyable experience.

What makes the Orals special – the way they are uniquely tailored to you and your interests – is precisely what makes it difficult to give general advice about preparing for them. Because the Orals are different for everyone, compiling a universal guide is a little tricky. However, we’ve organized this guide into sections that broadly cover the process you will have to go through: Choosing Your Committee, Making Lists, Reading, Staying in Touch With Your Committee, and Day of Exam. In each section, we give a brief overview and present some first hand accounts, written by your fellow grad students who have already been through this experience, in hopes that their advice will be helpful to you

“Unlike the Comps, the Oral Exam is not just a hoop to jump through on your way to a degree: it is the time when you define, for yourself, what it means to be a scholar of literature and what type of scholar you’d like to be. You are no longer just accumulating knowledge, but are beginning, hopefully, to pose certain fundamental questions to yourself. It’s an exciting, rewarding, if sometimes frustrating process; for me, it was a slow one.”

“The mystique surrounding the oral exams in the English program is warranted, only to the extent that no two students have the same Orals experience.”

Perhaps the most important piece of advice we can offer you is to think of this exam as your own creation. It is, in some ways, the first announcement of yourself as an academic scholar. You can frame this experience any way you want; ultimately, it is all up to you. What kind of academic do you want to be? Will you think of these lists as a teaching resource? Will you think of them as preparation for your dissertation? If so, what kind of project might you be interested in? What critical approaches do you see yourself participating in? How do you want to collaborate with your colleagues (because the professors on your committee today could be colleagues tomorrow)? What is the kind of work you want to do?

“The first statement that I’d like to make about the oral exam is that it is not something to be feared. It is a very different beast from the comprehensive exams, and this is a good thing. The oral exam is an opportunity to explore your own ideas in a conversational setting, and possibly pave the way for your dissertation. At the very least, [the Orals offers] you the chance to pursue your own interests with academic support. The wonderful part about this exam is the level of control that the student has. You design the reading lists, pick your examiners, and can even shape the structure of the exam by deciding the order of examiners. When I took my oral exam, I began with the list that was the broadest, and that I most enjoyed, creating a backdrop against which I was able to position my theoretical discussion, which was my weakest field. By beginning with my favorite list, I gained confidence, and a point of reference to help the examiners understand my academic mindset.”

One of our contributing writers suggests that keeping in mind the following affirmations might be valuable:

  • I don’t have to do a project I dislike or find boring (I can negotiate with my professors)
  • I don’t have to read texts I am uninterested and unexcited about (I can negotiate with my professors so that most of the texts I read will be ones that I am interested in)
  • I don’t have to work with professors who I feel are not helping me (for whatever reason) – I can choose other people to work with (even if I haven’t taken their classes before)

As you plan for the Orals, remember that in order to move to Level III where you will be writing your dissertation, you must also successfully finish all incompletes, and pass both language exams. These factors can influence when you schedule your exam. When you schedule your exam date, you will want to give yourself a nice, unhurried time to prepare if possible. Scheduling an exam at the end of a break (and therefore at the beginning of a semester) is often popular. You are responsible for coordinating a suitable date with all of your committee members (sometimes faculty are hard to pin down), and professors are generally unwilling to schedule exams during the summer or winter breaks. At least six weeks before your scheduled date and preferably earlier, you must submit your completed Orals contract (to be found on the English Department website) and lists to the APO for Program approval and to schedule a room for the exam.

You will also want to keep in mind certain deadlines. In order to apply for Graduate Center dissertation fellowships (which, if won, provide some support for your next year), you must have moved to Level III and have had your prospectus submitted to the department by November 15th. The application deadline for these fellowships usually occurs at the end of January. So, you may want to schedule your exam such that you have adequate time afterwards to prepare for this next set of hurdles.

Even if it means delaying doing the reading, you’ll feel a lot better if you can leave the Orals as a level three student. If the incomplete is a signal of some kind of emotional baggage (mine was), then again, ask someone for help‖ and ―Whatever you’re not sure of, ask about. Ask your committee to give you practice questions. Ask them how they’d like you to prepare.

“I spent a year and three months studying for Orals – from May 2006, when I finished coursework, until August 2007 – which is longer than most people I know. I wasn’t, of course, assiduously studying for Orals that whole time. In the summer of 2006, I took the Latin course offered by the Language Reading Program in order to complete my last language requirement, and in the Fall of 2006, I audited a class with a professor who I wanted on my Orals committee but who I hadn’t been in touch with in awhile, and I also took a dissertation workshop offered through the American Studies Certificate Program. I didn’t finalize my Orals lists and begin serious, regular Orals reading until the Spring of 2007. What forced me to take the exam, finally, was that I had to be ABD for an adjunct job that was starting in the Fall of 2007.

It’s not that I was putting off the exam, or that I was afraid of it in some way. It simply took me awhile to figure out what exactly I wanted my literary-intellectual trajectory to look like. Twice I ended up changing lists (and professors) I had already begun reading for: in the summer of 2006, my three fields were in Colonial American Literature, 19th Century African-American Literature, and 20th Century Avant-Garde American Poetry; in the fall, I changed the Colonial list to a list on Native American Literature, and in the spring I changed the African-American list to a list on the OuLiPo (which ended up being my dissertation topic). It was like I was playing musical chairs with my lists and my professors. I’m glad, though, that I gave myself as much time as I did to get my three lists right, and I’m also glad that I gave myself another 6-8 months of time to read those lists once I settled on them.”

As you can see, there are a variety of approaches you can take towards preparing for this exam.

— Emily Lauer & Balaka Basu


Selecting Your Committee:

Your Orals experience may become easier if you think of the exam itself as a long process rather than a “do-or-die” couple of hours. In some ways, the beginning of the second Qualifying Exam begins with the process of choosing your committee. The nuts and bolts of this process are fairly self-explanatory. This committee should consist of three professors who are typically appointees at the Graduate Center, although they need not all be English faculty. So if you have an interest in theater, or comparative literature, or history, you may be able to add a professor from a different department to your committee. To do so, you need EO approval. With the EO’s approval it is also sometimes possible to have a non-Graduate Center appointee serve on the orals committee. If, for instance, there is someone at one of the CUNY campuses who is not currently on the doctoral faculty at the GC but who you feel would be a particularly appropriate examiner, you should ask the EO if it would be possible for that professor to serve on the examining committee.

You may wish to first approach the person who you wish to serve as the chair of your committee. Often, if your interests and focus do not shift in the interim, the chair of the Orals committee goes on to serve as the adviser for the dissertation, and will therefore be someone with whom you will have a close working relationship. Each member of the committee will examine you on one list (more about compiling these lists in the next section). You may wish to approach professors whom you know from taking classes, but if you have an esoteric interest not normally covered in course offerings, you may wish to ask around the department. Often professors have a secondary research interest that they do not usually teach but will be happy to explore with you in an Orals list.

When you approach professors, feel free to candidly ask them about how they usually handle lists and exams. This will help ensure the best possible fit. While choosing professors, consider whether or not you have similar outlooks on similar interests. For instance, suppose you want to do an early modern list focusing on drama other than Shakespeare (because you secretly think Shakespeare is over-rated). Choosing an examiner who has made Shakespeare his or her life’s work and subscribes to the Bardolatry camp may add some unnecessary angst to your Orals-related stress. On the other hand, you may find that the challenge of justifying your ideas to a somewhat hostile audience helps to solidify your own, although few people seem to feel this way.

“If you have taken classes from the professors in the past, you should consider how they gave feedback in that setting. For instance, did you find their responses to your work and ideas provocative? Encouraging? You may also be worried about personality clashes between your committee members. One way to avoid those awkward moments is to compile your committee with the advice of your committee chair.

I think the first thing to remember about Orals is that you should feel like you’re in control. Sure, your committee members are the ones who are going to be asking the questions and they should certainly have a say in what (and how) you read, but, ultimately, it might be more helpful to think as the exam almost as a colloquium or an exchange—one that you should be able to shape through your answers. While I obviously can’t speak for all the different professors in our department, the impression I got from my committee is that the Orals are the turning point between coursework and dissertating and, along with that, they were looking for me to take an active role in shaping the experience and approaches—and in balancing their views with my own. (It helped, of course, that my committee was made up of professors I’d worked with in different capacities since the beginning of my time at the GC, but I’m not sure that was the deciding factor in the experience overall. Though I will say that if you’re completely in awe of someone and can’t imagine ever disagreeing with them to their face, then you might want to think long and hard about having them on your committee.)”

“I had done an independent study that in many ways foreshadowed one of my lists; the professor with whom I did that was already on board to be my advisor. Independent studies can be a great way of preparing for the Orals. Then I had taken courses with another professor, who I knew I wanted to be involved. Luckily they were both interested in the project, and they both suggested the third person, whom I had never met nor worked with, but who also seemed excited by the project when I approached her. (This third professor ended up becoming my dissertation advisor; the Orals were really helpful in showing me where I wanted my focus on this project to be!)”

“When I was thinking about who I wanted for my committee, I chose professors whose classes I’d enjoyed and who I knew gave thoughtful and nuanced feedback to my work. I didn’t have a dissertation advisor yet (though some people do have this planned before they get to their Orals), so I chose my Orals committee partly as speculation about what my dissertation would be.”

“I began my preparation by talking with my dissertation advisor. I knew who two of my committee members would be, and my advisor suggested other professors to approach, gently steering me away from what I thought was my genius idea of combining two early modern theatrical lists with an introductory foray into the field of Southern Gothic novels.”


Making Lists:

Once you have chosen your committee, you are ready to begin compiling your lists. The first thing is to settle upon a specific topic/area for each list. This subject could be a time-period, genre, group/author, theory, or some specific combination of the four. You will want to decide if the structure of each list should be narrow and deep or broad and exhaustive. The length of each list will in some ways be determined by this decision. One way to consider list length is to say that the list should, at minimum, cover all the reading necessary to teach the list topic as an undergraduate course. Naturally if you have a very dense list (on say, french theory) or a list with very long texts (on say, the epic) the number of texts on your list may be small in comparison to someone who is doing a list on 21st century comics.

You will probably want to have some combination of primary and secondary sources on each list, though the list can be skewed in favor of either depending on topic. The APO keeps sample lists for your perusal. Expect the list supervisor to add/remove items to/from your list before approving it, and even afterwards during your preparation period. While these suggestions are often very helpful, you may find that some of them don’t work for you, for whatever reason. Keeping an open dialogue about the list itself can be very helpful in this regard. Remember that you and the list supervisor will often be reading or at least re-reading these texts at the same time in order to prepare for the exam. Some faculty may be especially impressed with very long lists; others may not be pleased to have to read or re-read excessive quantities of material – this is something to keep in mind when selecting your committee, and making your lists.

Some important things to consider in terms of list composition: Be forward-looking. Choose lists and texts that you think will be helpful to your dissertation, or on the market, or later in life, not just things you feel you already know and may no longer be so interested in. You may want to get your lists to talk to each other – while there shouldn’t be overlap between the lists, you may be able to make helpful connections by thinking about the list subjects in conjunction. You can use the Orals to create a specialty and/or subspecialty. Balance the lists between primary and secondary, new and familiar. We suggest that you try to avoid signing on for anything you’ve never even seen or heard of. If a committee member wants you to add a text you don’t know, you can tell him or her that you’ll check it out and see if it would be helpful. Also, as you are choosing your texts and subjects, remember that you may be asked in the exam itself exactly why you made these particular choices, so that’s a question to keep in mind for yourself as you are compiling.

Remember, at the end of your preparation, you are going to be an expert on the fields that you have chosen. You’ll want to make sure the choices of fields you’ve made are ones you actually like.

“Think of each list as an expanded syllabus. Lists should be thematically and logically organized. Don’t make the mistake of putting only books you haven’t read on there (initially I did that). Think about the list the way you would think about a syllabus for an upper level or graduate course. The number of books on each list will far surpass a reading list for any kind of course, but the list might provide three or four different sets of books you could use to teach the same course, depending on what you wanted to emphasize in each version. At the same time, an Orals list is often easier to imagine if you first imagine an upper level course you might want to teach – what would the readings be? What other books might be good to use as reference points? Where could you direct eager students looking to expand their knowledge beyond the main reading list?

Also, don’t approach the list itself as an aesthetic object. Another stumbling block involves anxiety about making the Orals lists themselves perfect objects. Students can spend months (even semesters) in the writing and revising of lists, ultimately impeding academic progress. Some lists do take time to craft, but these lists will not be published in gilt-edged volumes – they will sit in a filing cabinet in the English office. After you’ve come up with a theme for the lists (again, think of courses you might like to teach), create a quick list of 25-30 books. Get feedback from potential examiners as soon as you can and you’ll be well on your way to finalizing lists. In this context, done is much better than pretty.

“I picked three topics that I was interested in, all of which were subjects that I felt would be significant in my dissertation. One was a subject I had never studied formally in grad school, but I was widely read in it nevertheless. I came up with a rationalization for the bounds of each list, and why I’d chosen them; this proved extraordinarily helpful in the exam itself – when I was asked why I’d chosen these particular topics in the first place! I compiled an initial list of primary texts, and a few secondary texts for each list, and then expanded them after consultation with my committee (all of whom seemed eager to continue piling sources on.) I never argued with them about any of my sources, so I ended up with lists that were extremely long…. There were pros and cons to doing it this way; I spent the summer slightly insane, but I do read pretty quickly, and I think my committee was impressed by the sheer quantity I presented them with. It’s important to remember though, that you’re only going to get in depth questions about texts that your list supervisor has also read, although of course you can bring in other things into your answer if you really want to talk about a specific text.”

“I went through most of my preparation thinking that the lists had remained pretty stable since I first compiled them; I found the originals the weekend before my exam and realized a lot had changed …. I had some primary and secondary reading under my belt and could start to see my trajectories developing—and revise the rest accordingly. Most of the changes weren’t major in terms of texts, but there were some significant alterations to my goals for each list, and those changes were reflected in new titles, all of which ended up being longer and more specific than they were at the beginning. A lot of this important conceptual work happened in conversation with members of the British long 19th century group. (Several of us were reading for Orals at the same time.)”

“Though I had written a rationale for the lists at the beginning of the process at the request of my chair, I very quickly discovered the limits of that particular framework. It was through discussions with other people in my field that I was finally challenged to articulate both an overall approach and the reasons for constructing the lists the way I had. That resulted in better titles and a stronger sense of ownership over my intellectual projects. It also forced me to defend some of my structural decisions that, at the time, had seemed unconscious, arbitrary, or someone else’s idea and to show how they actually reflected something important about what I was trying to accomplish. If I had to give one piece of advice about the Orals, I would say this: take the time to work out the rationales for each list individually and think about why your three lists work together. If your committee is anything like mine, they are going to be most interested in getting you to talk about broad conceptual issues (genre, periodization, form, theoretical approaches) in your field(s) using specific texts from your lists as examples rather than quizzing you about the plotlines of individual works. This is another place where you need to be in control—and you can prepare for this ahead of time by talking to your committee members about what interests you and what they plan to ask, based on your list.”

“If a book is unpromising, let it go—it’s ok to stop after the preface or the introduction. Most of the good theoretical stuff is usually up front, so if it’s not there, it’s not there. If a source mentions something interesting, add it to the list (but write down where it was mentioned!). Keep your committee advised of how the lists are growing, changing, morphing—it’s what’s supposed to happen.”