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.”