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The Preliminary Examinations

The preliminary examinations are overseen by the student’s Major Advisor who is usually (but not always) also the director of the student’s dissertation.  The Major Advisor is the chair of the examining committee.  In some cases, a director or co-director of the dissertation from outside the Program’s core faculty may be appointed but each exam committee must have one member from the Comparative Literature faculty (this may include zero time faculty).  That director or co-director need not be officially involved in the examination process, though he or she usually is, most often as an examiner of one of the student’s literatures. Four examiners are required by the Graduate College for the preliminary examinations, the oral defense, and the dissertation defense. At least two of those committee members must be tenured faculty.

The preliminary examinations should be taken at the conclusion of 32 credit hours of coursework or as soon as possible thereafter.  These examinations are of two kinds: written and orals.   The written examinations – which should be completed within a three-week period – are based on reading lists made in consultation with each examiner.

The written examinations consist of three parts — two written exams and one oral exam (n.b.: this is the new exam structure as of Fall 2016):

  1. Take-home exam on the dissertation field, including secondary sources, and related critical theory (approximately 50 titles).  The exam is to consist of 4 questions, each written by one member of exam committee.  The Chair of the exam committee collects the questions from the three other examiners and assembles the exam.  The student chooses only two questions, answering each of them in an essay of approximately 5-10 double spaced pages. Graduate Services will email the exam to the student as close to 9 AM as feasible, and the answers are due by 5:00 PM of the same day.

  2. A period exam in the second minor literature (2 hours in length, to be completed in graduate student services in FLB), based on a reading list of 15-20 works. The exam consists of a passage in the original language, chosen by the examiner from any single work on the reading list, which the student explicates in no less than four double-spaced pages. The passage can be in the form of a short poem or a prose passage of about 500-700 words, and it should be sufficiently rich to allow for a nuanced analysis that draws out not only the specific features of the passage and the work to which it belongs, but also general characteristics of the period and the literary or cultural tradition in question, showing “the universe in a grain of sand.”

The literatures and periods chosen should have a coherent rationale within the field of Comparative Literature.  In the case of European and American literatures, both minor literatures should cover similar periods (for instance, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance through the Enlightenment, Romanticism through the 19th century, or the 20th century).  If one or two classical literatures are combined with more modern literatures, then the requirement of similar periods for both minor literatures may not apply.  In the case of other literary traditions, a different periodicity may apply.  If the student’s work crosses rather different cultures and civilizations, then other criteria of comparativity must be established.  Students are urged from the start of their graduate careers to enter into a conversation with the DGS and then with the Major Advisor on which combinations of literatures and periods make the best professional sense in light of their interests.  

The oral examination (2 hours) normally occurs within a month after the successful completion of the student’s last examination.  The student, chair, and one other voting member must be physically present for the oral exam and the dissertation defense. This exam covers two areas:

  1. The written examinations, revisited. The student may be asked to address the answers given in the written examinations.  In order to review for this part of the orals, the student shall be given copies of the questions and the student’s answers on the written examinations.  Comments and evaluations by the professors, however, will remain confidential.

  2. The dissertation proposal. The proposal shall be submitted to all the members of the committee at least two weeks before the date of the orals.   A suitable proposal is generally about 10 pages long, those pages covering several areas: a statement of the topic itself, giving the grounds for comparison as well as the critical approach(es) to be used, and detailing what the student expects to find or to prove (5 or 6 pages, single-spaced); a topical outline (no more than 2 pages, single-spaced) giving a firm sense of the structure of the dissertation and its argument; a bibliography (no more than 2 pages, single-spaced) of the most relevant primary and secondary works.  

In the case of failure in one or more of the written examinations, the oral examination is postponed.  The student is given one more chance to pass the examination(s) in question.  A second failure results in dismissal from the Program.  The oral examination will then not be necessary.  In the case of failure in the oral examination, the student is given one more chance to pass it.  A second failure in the oral examination results in dismissal from the Program.