What should you be thinking about in putting your oral exam committee together? What might you have prepared? How did you approach selecting your committee members, and asking faculty to serve on the committee? From the faculty perspective, what do you wish students to know? What is your sense of the exam? These are the kinds of questions with which we held an on line conversation on Friday, 3 April 2020. Param Ajmera, Filipa Calado, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Talia Schaffer offered remarks addressing these matters, and this post, while not a verbatim record of the conversation, shares some of the main takeaways from it, fwiw. (please remember that you can find official program information regarding the oral examination in the Practical Guide — https://gc.cuny.edu/Page-Elements/Academics-Research-Centers-Initiatives/Doctoral-Programs/English/Resources)

What should you be thinking about?

  • who has exhibited enthusiasm and encouragement in their work with students, with me?
  • who shows pleasure and takes joy in their engagements with scholarship, teaching, intellectual work?
  • who inspires me through their modes and means of engagement?
  • who might be able to help me develop a list in an area in which I know nothing?
  • with whom do my research interests align?
  • with whom have I taken courses or otherwise had fruitful substantive encounters?
  • how might the exams help me address unresolved questions and inspire new ones?
  • what are the key concepts I want to sink into through the course of exam preparation?
  • do I want to stay in my comfort zones or try to explore new areas, or some mix of these?
  • what experiences have other students had with various faculty members?
  • consider your goals: do you want the exams to help you address gaps in your knowledge? to provide a sense of direction for the dissertation project? to serve as background research for the dissertation?

how might you prepare in getting a committee together?

  • attend program events/Friday Forums as a way of familiarizing yourself and developing rapport with a range of faculty members
  • have a preliminary list of sample texts, topics, and/or questions together in contacting potential committee members to ask after possibility of working together on developing list

what’s helpful to know?

  • how does a particular committee member like to work — i.e., meeting regularly? meeting rarely? And, does a particular style of work mesh with your own needs?
  • it is a distinct pleasure for faculty members to work with students; it is work, but not a burden.
  • the exam and dissertation committees may but do not have to be the same; the chair of the exam committee may but does not have to be the director of the dissertation.
  • related to the above, students are decidedly not responsible for faculty feelings: it is absolutely fine to change committee constitution. And, if someone is pressuring you to direct, that should serve as a specific prompt to think twice about having that person serve on the committee at all.
  • how well you work with someone is more important than field of expertise.
  • you need not remain within the precinct of a given committee member’s knowledge base.
  • there is not a uniform, single way of approaching, preparing for, or executing the conversation at the exam, so, figure out in conjunction with your committee members how best to make it work for you as an occasion to let your thinking fly!
  • review what you’ve already read in a given area of knowledge to remind yourself that you’re not starting from square one in preparation.
  • on occasion, faculty members decline to serve on a committee; remember there are lots of structural reasons that may be the case, and in any event, it’s better to know in advance whether something won’t work for whatever reason. Simply, move on!
  • by the time we get into the room for the exam, the question at hand isn’t so much passing as it is shared interestedness in what you’re thinking about now, having read deeply and intensely across a range of texts and ideas.
  • the idea of the exam induces anxiety; the reality of the exam is often exhilarating, joyous, fun!

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