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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Nobody's Genre

My colleague likes to say that the MA exam is nobody's genre. In other words, the exam is a hurdle to be overcome. Studying for the examination is useful, because one has to read the works on the list and organize one's knowledge, but performance on the exam means very little. Very few people excel, beyond showing that they have read the list, and many students underperform. If the exam was one's best genre, that would be very sad, in a way, because nobody reads the exam except to see whether someone passes or fails.

Even the PhD exam is almost nobody's genre.

The dissertation, though, should be everyone's genre. This is a time to progress, not regress. At this point, the student has been trained to do nothing else except for writing a dissertation.


Clarissa said...

I loved the comprehensive exams. It was very comforting to have a reading list and a set of dates to organize oneself. I haven't done as much intensive reading and thinking since then.

I really wish somebody could give me a tenure-track reading list. :-)

Jonathan said...

That's the problem. There is no list any more, no comforting feeling that everything you need to know is listed on a sheet of paper.

Shedding Khawatir said...

This is why I'm glad my program does papers, not exams.

profacero said...

PhD exam was my best academic experience ever. And you wrote your own list (with guidelines, of course). It was a lot more challenging than the dissertation and more interesting.

I sometimes suspect a reason I and others had bad dissertation advice was that people were not expected to actually do them (most dropped out of program after PhD exam) and women were not expected to go seriously on market or be taken seriously on it.

So, for a lumpen graduate student like me (i.e. not some professor's protege, not someone who was particularly believed in) the dissertation, if you were going to write one, was to be produced quickly, so university's stats could go up, but it didn't have to be good.

Mine was beautifully written but not well researched compared to, say, the seminar papers I'd always written, because at that point we were supposed to "just write" and also taunted with the idea that we wouldn't / couldn't write, were probably conspiring not to finish, etc.

It amazes me that the assumption was that the PhD exam stripped one of the ability to do research and write, but that was based I guess on the fact that the exam was so exhausting that lots of people were too tired to go on afterwards.

profacero said...

PS though: the reason I really liked the exams was that they were the only chance we had to read broadly. Graduate courses tended to be weirdly scattered and anyway, you couldn't read broadly because you had to come up with a serious piece in 10 weeks, in a field about which you knew little to start with, so you had to concentrate on that. Therefore exams were about the only opportunity to sit down and read a lot of primary texts.

Clarissa said...

"PhD exam was my best academic experience ever. "

-Same here. :-) I felt so powerful, like I could do anything during those exams. And very sad when they were over.