The three or four minutes between when my qualifying exam ended and when I found out I had passed rank among the weirdest of my life. Not because I feared I had failed. In fact, immediately following the exam, which I took last Tuesday and which consisted solely of a two-hour oral interrogation, I encountered a calm and a confidence that I hadn’t known in months. Instead, the moment’s weirdness stemmed from a sort of whiplash. Ideas, arguments, and anxieties had been cramming themselves into every corner of my brain for over a year. Suddenly, they were free—unleashed and dissipated in the space a two-hour conversation. It felt more than a bit anticlimactic. A disappointing question seemed to cloud out any sense of accomplishment or pride: “That was it?” A week later, I’m feeling prouder—and still celebrating—but the question remains.
I relished most of the process of preparing for orals. There were bad books, sure, and there was plenty of exhaustion. The bouts of exhaustion passed quickly, though, and—thanks to a key piece of advice from a cherished undergrad mentor (“if you find a book that just isn’t useful, don’t dwell on it”)—so did the bad books. My lowest points came when teaching, research, grant applications, and other commitments meant that I couldn’t devote as much time to a given book as I thought it deserved.
But looking back on the past year, the moments of intellectual excitement and the relentless pace of discovery are the things that really stand out. Every Sunday, I’d pull the next week’s books from my shelves, and stack them on the table next to my reading chair. Chipping away at that pile day by day was terribly fulfilling. Most mornings, after reading the paper and downing a pot of coffee, I’d find myself feeling hungry for that day’s book—hungry to find out what it argued, to see what made it tick, to decide where it might go wrong, and to put it in my back pocket.
That sensation never faded, because brilliant books recharged it again and again. I was entranced by the archival magic and intense empathy of Seth Rockman’s Scraping By, Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello, and Mel Ely’s Israel on the Appomattox. I was stunned by the analytical rigor of Peter Onuf and Naomi Lamoreaux. I was dazzled by the intricate arguments of Gordon Wood’s Creation of the American Republic and Laura Edwards’s Gendered Strife and Confusion. The historiographical chutzpah of Gary Gallagher’s The Union War and Steve Pincus’s 1688 got me riled up in an intellectually productive way. Walter Woodward’s Prospero’s America, Rhys Isaac’s The Transformation of Virginia, and David Shields’s Civil Tongues and Polite Letters opened up new and strange worlds. I mulled the deep tragedy of Ed Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom over a bottle of wine. In a particularly serene and serendipitous moment, I read Eric Foner’s Reconstruction on a beach in the Virgin Islands; the significance of property regimes became terribly apparent as the sun set and the relative density of street and house lights illuminated vastly different degrees of development on the American and British islands—the former, developed and lit as could be, the latter, more sparsely lit and still largely owned by the descendants of emancipated slaves, thanks to property laws that favor community over individual choice. (I was delighted to find that another person on that very same beach was reading Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution!)
During the last month of prep, though, my voracious appetite gave way to terror. In the face of the impending exam, I became grumpy, reclusive, and bitter. Maybe even obsessed. The big day finally came, and sheer adrenaline carried me from my apartment to the room. The exam itself was surprisingly fun. I got to discuss many of my favorite books. I proposed plenty of new directions for future scholarship. I probably spent more time talking about the Iranian Revolution (for my comparative revolutions field) than American slavery, which was odd, but I did enjoy in-depth discussions of the state of colonial historiography, of the new “history of capitalism,” and of the turning points in the antebellum sectional crisis. And yet for all 227 books, for all the notes and reviews and historiographical write-ups and mock exams, on the other side of those two high-stakes hours, I can’t shake the question, “That was it?”
The question contains a hint of fear: did the past year’s work provide anything concrete I can carry into my future career? I fear the answer is “no,” which begs a broader question: what, exactly, is the goal of comprehensive exams, and are they structured in the best way to accomplish that aim? (This, of course, is an ongoing conversation, which has recently been raised elsewhere on the internets. And I admit that students in many other programs face hazing rituals far less humane than my department’s two-hour oral exam. Nevertheless, I have rarely heard of a comprehensive exam whose form and structure made total sense, so I think this is a conversation worth raising again.)
Most justifications for the comprehensive exam, it seems, fall into one of three categories. The first is “mastery of the field”—a notion that strikes me as entirely antiquated, a relic of the era when the exams were first implemented, perhaps, but no longer compatible with the discipline’s epistemology in the wake of the explosion of social and cultural historical scholarship.
The second set of rationales revolves around the dissertation. The qualifying exam, it is said, either winnows out those who are unprepared for dissertation work or, alternatively, in itself prepares you for dissertation work. Neither of these justifications seems to hold water, either. Nobody I’ve spoken with in my department can remember somebody who has failed their qualifying exams and has left the program; I suspect this is the case in many departments. Moreover, it’s not clear to me that the skills an oral exam tests—memory, elocution, the ability to confidently manage the micropolitics of a conversation (or, put more crassly, to bullshit)—bear upon the actual work of researching and writing a dissertation.
The third set of justifications I hear has to do with teaching. This is the conventional rationale in my department: comprehensive exams prepare you to teach. And yet, on the other side of the exam, I feel far from prepared for teaching. I am ready to begin thinking about teaching, I suppose. But if teaching is the goal of the exams—and I think it should be, particularly in an era when humanities learning is under siege—then why doesn’t the qualifying process focus less on memorization and elocutionary agility and more on writing syllabi, lectures, and assignments? Many of us don’t really learn something until we have to teach it, anyways. Two weeks before my exam, I lectured on the Market Revolution for my advisor’s early republic course. It was among the most useful parts of my prep; it forced me to review books and arguments, to synthesize, to take a stand, and to confront the gaps in my own knowledge.
I had initially intended this post as a simple reflection that, I hoped, would encourage blog readers to share their memories (and battle scars) from their own comprehensive exams. But this lingering doubt about the exam’s purpose has also left me curious to hear why people think the exam is important, what it accomplishes, whether it’s worth the stress and intimidation, and how we might improve it. Thoughts?