English Comprehensive Exam

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English Comprehensive Exam

2010-2012 Lists and Exam Overview
Beginning in fall 2010, English majors will have the opportunity to take the department’s newly revised comprehensive exam. In fall of 2011, only this new exam will be available to first-time examinees. This new exam structure allows you to choose one of four different lists, all organized thematically. These shorter lists are intended to give you the opportunity for deeper engagement with the texts and to stress the importance of a proper theoretical grounding for this engagement. On the exam itself, the details of which are described below, you will be asked to demonstrate your command of your list, as well as your expertise in explication and analysis.
I. Essay

Recommended time: 1 hour 15 minutes

For the essay portion of the exam, you will be asked to make connections among various texts on your chosen list and to discuss the ways in which your texts address a particular aspect of their common theme. Whether or not the prompt directs you to discuss a specific theoretical text from your list, your essay must demonstrate a command of the relevant theory included therein.
Below are sample questions for each list. Please note that the questions presented here represent the kinds of questions you may be asked to answer for any of the lists; that is, the type of question corresponding to each list is not list-specific but simply representative of a range of possibilities for all exams (e.g. though our narrative question uses one literary text as a focal point, this merely demonstrates a particular approach that we might employ for any of the questions).

Race and Nation: Benedict Anderson argues that “all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined.” This means that, because we never actually know our fellow citizens, we are left with an ideal or representative idea of community membership. Using Douglass’s Narrative and at least one other work from the list, discuss the manner in which the authors construct narratives that counter what might be exclusionary national narratives in an effort to forge for themselves a place in that “imagined community.”

Narrative: T.S. Eliot considered titling “The Waste Land” “He do the Police in Different Voices,” a clear reference to the multiple narrative perspectives throughout the work. Using that poem and at least two other works on the list, discuss the degree to which multiple narrative voices are not simply techniques employed in the text, but thematically relevant.
Gender and Sexuality: Consider the way that problems of gender are linked to and foregrounded by a sense of foreignness in three of the following works: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; George Gordon, Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto V; Henry James, Daisy Miller; Olive Schreiner, The Story of an African Farm; Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises; David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly; Ana Castillo, “Loverboys.”
Crime and Punishment: Elaine Scarry speaks specifically of physical pain resulting from torture when she claims, “Intense pain is . . . language destroying: as the content of one’s world disintegrates, so the content of one’s language disintegrates, so that which would express and project the self is robbed of its source and its subject” (35). Consider whether physical pain is peculiar in its capacity to destroy language and even a sense of self. Drawing on at least three texts from your list, craft an argument about the ways in which physical and emotional pain, particularly that pain which is inflicted by agents of power, affect the ability of the sufferer to “express or project” him or herself through language.
A successful response to this portion of the exam will demonstrate the following:

  • The ability to produce an essay that is thesis-driven and supports its claims with plentiful and appropriate textual evidence;

  • The ability to craft a single, unified discussion that puts the works in conversation with each other and avoids three discrete answers;

  • Careful thought about and mastery of the texts you have chosen for your response;

  • Familiarity with the theoretical framework of your list and an ability to ground your discussion in that theory;

  • A command of the conventions and vocabulary of literary studies;

  • A command of the conventions of academic writing in English, including grammar and punctuation.

II. Explication

Recommended time: 45 minutes

For this portion of the exam, you will be asked to write an essay in which you examine a poem’s details and language in a close reading. Your analysis should consider how diction, imagery, figurative language, symbolism, structure, rhyme, meter, and other poetic devices create this poem’s meaning and effect. Your writing need not have the rigorous organization around a thesis that is expected for the essay in Part I, but you should provide a coherent and comprehensive analysis of the elements of the poem.
The poems provided for the explication (you will choose one of two) will not appear on any of the lists. This section of the exam is designed not to test your research abilities, but rather to give you a chance to show that you have developed the skills that you need to explicate a new poetic text when you encounter one.
A successful response to this portion of the exam will demonstrate the following:

  • The ability to use formal literary terms fluently and appropriately to provide an insightful analysis of the poem;

  • The ability to produce an analysis of the poem that offers an interpretative reading corresponding to the text’s details;
  • An identification and analysis of a sufficient number of supporting details from the poem in order to develop the explication fully;

  • A command of the conventions of academic writing in English, including grammar and punctuation.

Race & Nation

William Shakespeare, Othello

Aphra Behn, Oroonoko

Mary Rowlandson, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life

W. E. B. Du Bois, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” from The Souls of Black Folk

Langston Hughes, from Selected Poems: “Afro-American Fragment,” “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “The Weary Blues,” “Song for a Dark Girl,” “Harlem,” “I, Too”

Joseph Conrad, Almayer’s Folly

James Joyce, Dubliners

William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Salman Rushdie, East, West

Karen Tei Yamashita, The Tropic of Orange

Caryl Phillips, Crossing the River

Louise Erdrich, “The Red Convertible” and “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways”

Junot Díaz, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” (short story)

Martín Espada, “Public School 190, Brooklyn 1963”

Judith Ortiz Cofer "American History"

Theoretical Texts:

Benedict Anderson, “Patriotism and Racism,” from Imagined Communities

Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark

Henry L. Gates, “A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey, from The Signifying Monkey

Edward Said, “Narrative and Social Space,” from Culture and Imperialism

Crime, Punishment, and Social Order

William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus

John Milton, Samson Agonistes

John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera

William Godwin, Caleb Williams

Georg Büchner, Woyzeck

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”

William Morris, “The Defence of Guenevere”

Rebecca Harding Davis, “Life in the Iron Mills”

Oscar Wilde, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”

Susan Glaspell, “Trifles”

Richard Wright, “The Man Who Lived Underground”

Arthur Miller, The Crucible

Bessie Head, “The Collector of Treasures”

Etheridge Knight, “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminally Insane” and “The Idea of Ancestry”

Sherman Alexie, Indian Killer

Philip Roth, The Human Stain

Theoretical Texts

Michel Foucault, “Part Two: Punishment” and “Panopticism,” from Discipline and Punish

Elaine Scarry, “The Structure of Torture: The Conversion of Real Pain into Fictions of Power,” from The Body in Pain

Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”


Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales (General Prologue, Knight’s Tale, Miller’s Tale)

Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”

Benjamin Franklin, excerpts from Autobiography

Daniel DeFoe, Moll Flanders

Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent

Samuel T. Coleridge, “Kubla Khan”

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” [1855]

Robert Browning, “My Last Duchess”

TS Eliot, “The Waste Land”

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie

Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried” and “How to Tell a True War Story”

Theoretical Texts

Mikhail Bakhtin, excerpt from “Discourse in the Novel,” from The Dialogic Imagination (259-331)

Peter Brooks, “Reading for the Plot,” Ch. 1 in Reading for the Plot

Gerard Genette, excerpt from Narrative Discourse

Terry Eagleton, “Discourse and Ideology,” from Ideology
Gender and Sexuality

Anonymous, “The Wife’s Lament” and “The Wanderer”

Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale”

William Shakespeare, As You Like It

Royall Tyler, The Contrast

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

George Gordon, Lord Byron, selections from Don Juan

Herman Melville, Billy Budd

Henry James, Daisy Miller

Walt Whitman, selections from Leaves of Grass: “From Pent-up Aching Rivers,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” “A Woman Waits for Me,” “We Two Boys Together Clinging,” “When I Heard at the Close of Day”

Olive Schreiner, The Story of an African Farm

Henrik Ibsen, Hedda Gabler

Virginia Woolf, Orlando

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Sylvia Plath, “The Applicant” and Ted Hughes, “Fever”

Toni Morrison, Sula

David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly

Ana Castillo, “Loverboys”

Richard Greenberg, Take Me Out

Theoretical Texts:

Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Introduction” and “Gender Asymmetry and Erotic Triangles,” from Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire

bell hooks, “Continued Devaluation of Black Womanhood,” from Ain’t I a Woman

R. W. Connell, “The Social Organization of Masculinity,” from Masculinities

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