The Master’s Reading List
Upon entering the M.A. program in English, each graduate student should procure a copy of the Master’s Reading List, upon which the Master’s Comprehensive Exam is based. While the student’s coursework, if properly managed, should provide a solid grounding in the advanced study of English and American literature, it must be supplemented with independent reading from the List to ensure sufficient command. In other words, the student is responsible for gaining mastery of the works on the List through judicious selection of courses and supplementary reading. The student is also advised to review the introductory sections and relevant author headnotes in the Norton English and American Literature anthologies when preparing for the exam. Of course, critical surveys and companion references (e.g., Oxford, Cambridge) to English and American literature may also be helpful, although they are no substitute for mastery of the primary texts.
Registering for the Exam
As the student nears completion of coursework (generally in the student’s final semester of study), he or she should inform the English Department office of intent to take the Master’s Comprehensive Exam. The exam is given on Monday (ID section) and Tuesday (Essays) in the first full week of April, July, and November. Please see: Exam Dates for date, times and location of exams. Students should register no later than one month before the exam date.
The Exam Committee
A committee consisting of three graduate faculty members from the department will be responsible for making, administering/proctoring, and grading the exam. Each Exam Committee will serve a period of one year, extending from the fall through the following summer semesters. Should a vacancy occur during that period, the Graduate Coordinator will appoint a replacement.
Taking the Exam
Once a student has entered the examination room and looked at the exam, he/she is considered to have officially attempted the exam. In other words, if the student then decides not to attempt the exam, the act of looking still counts as a ‘take.’
The exam itself consists of two parts: a short-answer (ID) section comprising character names, titles of works, literary terms, dates, brief quotations, and similar items that reflect the historical proportions of the Reading List; and an essay section organized in accordance with the historical division of the List.
(1) Sample model responses to the various types of items likely to appear on the ID section of the exam will be available for inspection by the graduate students in the department office. When taking the exam, the student will have ninety minutes to respond to twenty of the thirty items on the ID section. In order to earn full credit (one point) for a response, the student will have to demonstrate not only precise knowledge of the item’s significance, but also an awareness of its generic/historical context. The graders may give partial credit at their discretion. No credit will be given for extra (more than twenty) responses. A passing score will be 16/20, or 80%; at least two of the three graders will have to assign a passing grade for the student to be passed on this section of the exam.
(2) Of the seven essay topics on the exam, five cover periods of English literature (Medieval, Renaissance & Seventeenth Century, Restoration & Eighteenth Century, Nineteenth Century, Twentieth Century), and two cover periods of American literature (Prior to 1860, 1860-Present). Further, two of the seven topics are passage-based. Each student will select three topics, at least one of which must be on the American side, and write an essay on each. While the student will be given ninety minutes to write each essay, the graders will be expecting the equivalent of a thoughtful, organized, detailed, hour-long essay on each topic. As with the ID section, two of the three graders will have to assign a passing grade to each essay in order for the student to be passed on that particular exam component. The following statement expresses the graduate faculty’s expectations for student performance on the essay section of the exam:
Students should keep in mind that the essay portion of the exam is intended to test not only their concrete knowledge of literature, but also their ability to place individual writers and works in the various general contexts (literary, cultural, historical) in which those writers and works exist. Therefore, those taking the examination should remember that, while knowledge is important, the graduate faculty also expects to see in the essays evidence of a synthetic and critical understanding of literature itself and of the historical periods in which literature is created.
Finally, students should take care to respond to the specific topics as they are stated.
Receiving Exam Results
Normally, students will be notified of exam results within two weeks of the exam date.
Retaking the Exam/Appeals Committee
A student need only retake those parts of the exam (e.g., an essay, the ID section) that have received a failing grade. (In the event of a failed essay, the student may attempt any of the periods not yet passed, as long as the American-essay requirement mentioned above [Taking the Exam (2)] is met in the process.) Any student who fails some portion of the exam must meet with the Exam Committee to review his or her performance and seek advice about preparation for a retake. The student must have this consultation session in order to be eligible for a retake. Retakes will normally be scheduled on the days in April, July, and November appointed for the Master’s Comprehensive Exam.
Any exception to this scheduling rule will be at the discretion of an Appeals Committee, consisting of the Graduate Coordinator and three graduate faculty members chosen by lot (excluding the members of that year’s Exam Committee). The Graduate Coordinator will be a nonvoting member of the committee.
Further, the Appeals Committee will consider petitions from any student who has failed one or more parts of the Comprehensive Exam on a second attempt and wishes a third (and final) chance. The student cannot automatically assume a right to take the exam a third time. He or she will need to offer mitigating circumstances and/or a plan to address deficiencies. If the Appeals Committee approves a third attempt, it may assign the student a graduate faculty mentor to monitor the student’s preparation for the final retake.
The Appeals Committee will not overrule the pass/fail judgments of the Exam Committee.
The Graduate Coordinator will meet with graduate students early in the fall and spring semesters for purposes of general orientation and review of Comprehensive Exam procedures.