Debbie Hawhee, who I think you know, has put up a nice little post about exams (you calling my post little?) over on her station. It reminds me that I once thought up what I imagined to be the ideal exam structure. I would go like this:

→ read extensively in the field(s) for a year or so
→ write somewhere between one to three articles for publication based on and using that reading
→ have committee member read said article(s), providing revision suggestions
→ meet for oral examination
→ move on to diss, integrating written materials in some way

I should say that the PhD exam process I went through in grad school was not completely dissimilar from this, the main difference being that the writing got condensed into 72 mad, wild, crazed, fret-filled hours. My MA exams were neolithic, involving six hours, small desks, and several blue books. As I had to take the exams twice (I wrote about Katherine Hayles' Choas Bound the first time around; not a popular topic with my reader), that meant twelve hours total and double-the-blue-books.

Anyway. What I like about the write-an-article/have-a-conversation model is that it approximates the work we do, and that seems to make sense to me in terms of assessment.


  1. Anonymous11:04 PM

    Bravo on a grand idea for exam reform.

    My M.A. and Ph.D. exams involved fewer Blue Books, but just as maddening and ridiculous a preparation.

    And the cramping! In other departments, students were allowed to type on laptops. But not us. Longhand all the way. By the end my arms were all Popeyed out and throbbing. Misery.


  2. The physical torture, the anxiety, and discomfort -- and for what?

    Has anyone done a comparative study of exams in different disciplines and campuses? Would be super interesting ...

  3. My posts are all little!

    I do like the tangibles produced by the model we follow in Speech Comm. But I fear their production has led many to the edges of sanity and beyond.

    The conversation part--missing from the place where I was 'examined,'--seems to me to be necessary but still not sufficient.

  4. Anonymous7:02 PM

    In Germany, this is roughly how it works (not that a German humanities degree is worth as much as one from other countries...):

    - You take a bunch of classes over the course of more or less as many years as you want.

    - When you feel like it, you can do a paper for a class for an actual grade.

    - Once you've finished X number of papers in whatever subjects your degree requires, you do a thesis with your adviser (Magister level) or Dissertation No. 1 with your adviser (Doktor level, the adviser is called your Doktorvater or Doktormutter). This is followed by an oral defense (Rigorosum).

    - After you have completed your doctoral degree (Promotion), you usually have to do a second dissertation for your postdoc (Habilitation) to get a position as a university instructor.

    This is more or less how it would work in the humanities; in applied sciences the structure is a bit different.


  5. You and I may need to write a book on this subject. We can write it in German and that way you can also act as its translator. :)

  6. Anonymous10:41 AM

    It's annoying how much time and money is involved in getting advanced degrees: I wish there were some low-cost way of doing all the reading/work maybe on your own time and then signing up for certain exams or seminars at certain points.

  7. Anonymous1:42 PM

    Is conversation necessarily that important, even? What if degrees had the option of a no-talk and all-write system? If you have an adviser who's not much of a talker, maybe some kind of written-discourse-only approach would be best.

    I know that at my oral exams and thesis defenses the "conversation" bit was a formality more than anything.

  8. I guess the yes answer would be that the conversation approximates certain things "we do in the field" (depending on the field), so it helps prepare for that.

    But what about options and choices on the student and the adviser side?

  9. Anonymous11:28 AM

    Maybe degrees should be entirely blog-based.

  10. I'm coming late to this comment party, I know, but I have to add another "yes" answer to Spencer's (or maybe I'm simply expanding on Spencer's answer). Getting an advanced degree--a PhD in particular--is about developing disciplinarity (or becoming "disciplined," if you prefer). Since that's the case, it's as much about enculturation into an incredibly complex social space as it is about reading and writing about what others have done and said. And I'd argue that that can't happen effectively without prolonged, and physically proximal, social interaction (including talk) with mentors, teachers, and other students.