PhD Exams: Overview

Between now and March I will be reading for my PhD exams. Partly as a way to keep myself accountable, and partly because others might find it interesting to get a glimpse into this strange time of the PhD experience, I’ve decided that each week, I will list what I’ve read since the last post, and choose one of those texts and do a short review/analysis/discussion of it. This will also be great for anyone curious about eighteenth century British and American literature; we’re covering it alllll.

But before that, what even are PhD exams? Consider this the “info dump,” overview, explainy post. Don’t really care? Come back this weekend for the literature. (Or check out the archive if you’re from the future. Hi there! How are things?)


Have you ever wondered what it entails when someone in a PhD program says they have exams? Or are you considering a PhD program yourself and wondering about the experience? Or do you just want to know why I’m reading a bajillion books* in six months? This is the post for you.

A caveat: this explanation is specific to the program (*school redacted*) and field (literature) I’m in. How this works varies from school to school and program to program, so your experience (or your friend’s) may be different. And by “may” I mean “definitely will.”

So you start a PhD program in literature. Here in the US, that usually means you take a few years of classes, then have your oral or comprehensive exams, then write a dissertation (a book-length scholarly project). This semester, I’m beginning the “exam” phase.

The purpose of the exam is twofold: to prepare you to teach by giving you the chance to read and study all the major literature of your chosen period, and to help you explore the ideas and questions that you hope to work on in your dissertation through a list of secondary (scholarly) books and articles.

The first thing you do is put together your exam committee. This involves identifying 3 professors who do work in or adjacent to your proposed field of study, and asking them to be your committee. They will help you develop your reading lists, and provide the exam questions. Typically, one of these professors is the chair, or head, of the committee. They are the one you work most closely with, and the one that has the final say in your lists, etc. (And they’re responsible for the administrative paperwork.)

I did this last fall. I met with the professor I wanted to be my chair (Professor C, for chair), and asked him if he would. We discussed the (very vague) research direction I’d like to go in for my future dissertation, and he agreed that our interests overlapped enough that he would be a good choice. I picked this professor first because his interests align with mine, in terms of period (the literal time period, which for me is 1700-1830 British and American literature), method (the way you approach analysis: print culture and historiography) and specific interests (the reading and writing practices of ordinary people of this time). I also picked him because I’ve taken several of his classes and know we work well together. This is best-case scenario; sometimes the professor you need hasn’t taught during your “take classes phase.” In this case, I strongly recommend trying to get to know them by meeting with them a few times to chat about your interests.

After meeting with Professor C, I asked the other two profs, Professor 2 and Professor 3. I chose these professors to help fill in ‘gaps’ in Professor C’s expertise, to help give me a more rounded exam list. For example Professor 2 does work with 18th century British literature, while Professor C is more focused on American, so they balance each other out.

In the spring, I started writing my lists. I did this by looking at lists written by other students in my program, googling and finding lists from students at other schools who were doing similar work, and by asking my professors for suggestions. After a few rounds of back and forth with each, I finalized the lists. They will still fluctuate as I do my reading; I’ll run out of time to get to *everything*, and I may find books that are more relevant than others on my list currently and switch them, things like that. But they are on the books as “officially approved,” which is what matters.

The exam list has three parts: primary literature, secondary literature, and scholarship. For a lot of people, the primary list is the books in the genre or sub-field they most want to work in, and the secondary list is more of a survey. For example, you might have list one be “American postmodern encyclopedic novels,” and list two be “general American lit from 1860.”** I’ve arranged things a little differently, as I’m essentially “double majoring” in British and American literature, so the subordination of “primary” and “secondary” doesn’t really matter. The primary list is primary because Professor C. is an Americanist, not because it’s most important. So you see, within the general practice there is a lot of individualized variation, at least at my school.

My first list is major works of American literature 1700-1830. You might recognize names like Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, Washington Irving, Thomas Jefferson, and James Fenimore Cooper. Also, while 1700-1830 is a pretty typical time frame that scholars use (there were some big shifts in the 1830s after a lot of continuity), most American lit I courses in college go to 1860, so I’ve added some of the big hits to prepare me to teach–books like The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, and the poetry of Walt Whitman show up for that reason.

My second list is major works of British literature 1700-1830. Did I say 1830 so I could get Jane Austen on this list? I’ll never tell ūüėá. Since I’m focusing on novels in my research, I have a lot of novels on this list (and the other one, too, but there are far fewer American novels published in this time frame). Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy; Maria Edgeworth, Fanny Burney, Anne Radcliffe, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley (there were a LOT of female authors in the second half of the 18th century). It also includes poetry and prose, from writers like Samuel Johnson and Alexander Pope.

My third list is secondary scholarship about reading and print culture. I’m looking at general scholarly takes on print culture, on books about reading specifically, and also books about the relationship between reading and education. For the curious, “print culture” is the study of printed things — books, pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, etc.–and the way people interacted with them as objects.

I was actually supposed to begin reading in the spring, through the summer, and take my exams late this fall. But between the chaos of the world and getting married in March, I got to May and was staring burnout in the face, and so arranged to push things back and take the summer off. I’m so thankful that my department is willing to work with us to arrange things like that when we need them.

So! Tune in this weekend for some thoughts on the first books I’ve been reading.

  • *It’s actually something in the neighborhood of 130; this includes long books like Tom Jones (almost 900 pages), parts of nonfiction books, essays, average-sized books, collections of poetry, and single poems. So it’s a lot of things, but at least some of those things are short.

**This is a real example.


Classic Re-Reads: Sense and Sensibility

Even though I’m a pretty fast reader, reading classics takes time, (especially when one decides to tackle¬†a beast like¬†Anna Karenina). So here begins an occasional series of classics I’ve not only read and enjoyed, but re-read. These works are comfort novels for me; stories I revisit as comfort food.

When I decided to begin this series, the first novel that sprang to mind was Jane Austen’s¬†Sense and Sensibility. Less famous than¬†Pride and Prejudice, I think I prefer it. (Not that I don’t love P&P!). Oddly, I only have one copy of this, unless you count the kindle version. I guess I spent many years borrowing from one library or another.

IMG_0059.jpgSense and Sensibility¬†was Austen’s first published novel. It follows the Dashwood sisters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. At the beginning of the story, their father dies, and their half brother John inherits everything. Thanks to his greedy, selfish, social-climbing wife Fanny, the Dashwood women, which include their mother Mrs. Dashwood, find themselves unwelcome in their own home. John is convinced by his wife, in a scene that is equal parts hilarious and depressing, that his deathbed promise to his father to provide for his sisters and stepmother really just amounts to giving them a Christmas present now and again. So the women now face a future of relative poverty.

They move to a cottage owned by Mrs. Dashwood’s distant relative Sir John, although not before Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars, comes to stay at their old home and makes an impression on steady, responsible Elinor. At their new home, Marianne makes an impression on Colonel Brandon, a steady, responsible, honorable man she sees as old and boring. She prefers Willoughby, the dashing nephew and heir of a nearby estate owner.

Despite being romantic (obviously, it’s Jane Austen), the novel focuses on the relationship between the sisters. Elinor is the POV character; our impressions and observations are filtered through her. Both she and Marianne experience heartache and – almost – tragedy, and grow up a lot over the year or so the novel follows, learning not only to understand themselves better, but also to understand each other. Despite challenges, they grow closer and gain a deeper and more relationship as sisters. Of course, they get a happy ending with the guys, too. It¬†IS¬†Austen, after all.

The Sense and Sensibility of the title are, of course, Elinor and Marianne, and Austen examines the advantages and disadvantages of both attitudes. Marianne, dramatic and romantic to the extreme, thinks that nothing could be better than dying tragically of a broken heart. Her actions are modeled on the (then) new Romanticism, valuing emotion and feeling about rationality, and she eventually must learn to temper her wild emotion. But Elinor doesn’t escape growth either. She is quiet, steady, rational and hides her emotions as much as her sister shares them. But this nearly causes her to miss out on love. Thus Elinor must learn to be more demonstrative, to let others in, to share her feelings.


This novel also holds a special place in my heart because it’s the first¬†real introduction I had to Austen’s work, through the 1996 film starring Emma Thompson as Elinor. Although personally I like the early 2000s BBC adaptation for most of the characters (Alan Rickman will always be Colonel Brandon to me), it is still a beautifully and carefully made adaptation, and I’ll always be grateful for the introduction to Austen that it provided.

But ultimately, despite the great plot and the history, Sense and Sensibility¬†is a comfort re-read for me because of all of Austen’s heroines, it is Elinor with whom I most identify. She has helped me understand myself better. As a heroine, she is not as witty as Lizzy or as vibrant as Emma, and the heroes of this book, too, are quiet, even shy. But it’s nice to read about people that aren’t extroverts, or smoldering, fabulously rich gentlemen (I’m looking at¬†you, Darcy). I like that Elinor is strong without being pushy or aggressive; she shows introvert me a quiet strength I feel like I can aspire to.


Film poster from wikipedia page; other image is mine.

January Classics

My classics goals for this year have shifted a little bit. Instead of reading “a majority” of classics (which, let’s face it, would be more than 50, which seems a little unrealistic), my 2018 goals are:

  • 1 classic a month
  • 1 early modern book a month

(and also 1 adult contemporary book every 2 months, but that doesn’t count for this blog.) (unless, you know, future classics?)


The early modern reading goal arises from my newly minted grad school focus on the early modern period in England, and the knowledge that I need to get my read on. Early modern, for those who are wondering, is roughly the 1500s through about 1660. Shakespeare, John Donne, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Philip Sidney, Thomas More . . . those guys. I’m concentrating on Shakespeare at the moment because he’s the subject of my thesis, but I’m trying to expand.

SO, in the interest of accountability, here’s my January books. I did actually meet my goals this month, and even exceed them, although all the books I read were slim, quick reads. I think I read the Cather and Shakespeare each in two days.


IMG_0028In A Glass Darkly Sheridan Le Fanu

I bought this book last summer in England, during my raid of the Oxford University Press bookstore. I love the Oxford Classics editions; they’re lovely, with that iconic red and white cover, inexpensive (relatively), and have great notes. The OUP bookstore (and Blackwell’s, one street over), usually have buy 1, get 1, or buy 2 get 1 deals, which is a great way to collect these books. I just have to limit myself, because, you know, they have to fit in my suitcase. Since I bought a bunch of them, and then proceeded to have a crazy fall and read exactly none, they’ll be frequent visitors this year.

I hope.

But you want me to tell you about the book, right?¬†In a Glass Darkly¬†is a collection of short stories published in 1872. They are framed as case files from the late Dr. Hessalius, a medical doctor with interests in psychological and (possibly) supernatural illness. Each story begins with the (unnamed) literary executor explaining where the story came from, giving each tale a “real world” anchor. There are five stories: the shorter “Green Tea,” “The Familiar” and “Mr. Justice Harbottle,” and the longer “The Room at the Dragon Volant” and “Carmilla.”

I began reading this book immediately, but put it down somewhere in the middle of “The Familiar” for several months. While I enjoyed all of the stories, I thought the first three were only okay. But the last two – OH BOY.

Le Fanu mostly writes Gothic fiction, and is a master at the “maybe it’s a ghost or maybe he’s hallucinating” kind of feint, an uncertainty which he makes plausible and not at all cheesy. “Dragon Volant” is a long story and took a little while to get into, but then I was so hooked. It is about an Englishman, Beckett, on tour in Europe and¬†so ready for some kind of adventure, preferably one where he rescues a beautiful lady, and boy does he get what he wants. This turns out to be more like a mystery than a gothic or supernatural tale.

“Carmilla” is one of the first English vampire stories, and it’s a classic, and so well done, and that’s all I’m going to say because spoilers.

O Pioneers Willa Cather

IMG_0026This book, published in 1913 and set in Nebraska around the turn of the last century (it’s not really specified), is about Alexandra Bergson, who emigrated from Sweden with her family a number of years before the story opens. Despite having two older brothers and a younger one, it is Alexandra, with a head for business and an intuitive feel for the land, who takes over the family farm after her father dies when she’s a teenager. The story follows Alexandra and her family and friends through the next twenty years as she prospers financially and yet still experiences deep suffering in other ways.

Personally, I think¬†My √Āntonia is a better book, with a stronger coherency, but this critique makes sense as¬†O Pioneers¬†is one of Cather’s first books. You can tell she’s still figuring some things out. In particular, the plot feels uncertain for about the first third of the book, like a collection of sketches instead of a novel. That does not mean this isn’t still a great book, and the plot coheres eventually. I love Cather’s prose so much, and the way she makes the land almost a character in the book is beautiful. For instance, the first sentence of the book: “One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.”

If you like contemporary fiction, but find most classics a struggle to read, try O Pioneers; despite being a hundred years old, in many ways its writing feels very contemporary.

Early Modern Books: 

¬†The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

IMG_0025This play was first performed around 1611, late in Shakespeare’s career, and printed in 1623. It is about Leontes, the king of Sicily, who suddenly decides, for no good reason, that his best friend, the king of Bohemia, has been having an affair with Leontes’ wife Hermione. And Hermione is very pregnant. And Polixines, the friend, has been visiting for nine months. And they definitely (actually) did not have an affair.

Confused? It’s not you. This play is weird, and convoluted, and I love it. The first three acts are kind of uncomfortable because of Leontes’ accusations, but this gives Hermione and one of her ladies, Paulina, the chance to be strong and awesome. Then the action jumps 16 years, and suddenly there’s a happy ending. Time shows up. ¬†Bohemia has a coast (it’s the (very landlocked) present-day Czech Republic). A guy is mauled by a bear (offstage). It’s so random, you just kind of have to go with it. Imagine it’s a fantasy, and it works much better.

Why do I like this play so much? I have no idea. Some of it is influenced by the Royal Ballet’s production, available on Amazon, which is so beautiful and which, stripped of the language, somehow helps the plot make sense. This is itself a little crazy, because the language in this play is amazing, too. I can’t quote my favorite line, because it’s a major spoiler, but here’s Paulina telling Leontes like it is: “I’ll not call you tyrant, / but this most cruel usage of your queen, / Not able to produce more accusation / Than your now weak-hinged fancy, something savors of tyranny” (2.3.115-119). Ouch.

So there you go. A lot of words about a few of the books I read in January. I’m quite pleased that I managed to meet, and even exceed, my new goals, although I know that may not last. I picked up¬†Anna Karenina¬†the other day, which is just . . . oh, boy. It’s so big. (I like it, but it’s so long). We’ll see how successful I am in February.


Also, it occurred to me that I could have taken prettier pictures. Something to aspire to next month, because I’m not re-taking these.

Mildly Epic List of Classics


My last list¬†was a bit of a beginner’s list; books to help you dip your toe in the ocean of classics. This week, I want to write (much) longer list of mostly novels and plays, with some short stories, long poems and essays, organized by time period. Lyric poetry will get its own list (someday).



Notes about the list:

  • Instead of literary period I’m just going to go in half-centuries.
  • These are all books I’ve read (and liked) or want to read, and isn’t meant to be exhaustive (that would be a¬†really¬†long list). If I miss your favorite book or author, put it in the comments!
  • A * denotes a book that some might find challenging, due to style usually.
  • I’ve just listed one book by each author, usually my favorite one, or the best known.
  • I’ve tried to include authors that get overlooked, and avoid super-well-known books that are recentish and still commonly read (like¬†1984¬†or¬†To Kill a Mockingbird)
  • Within the time range I haven’t gone in any particular order.


  • Mrs. Dalloway¬†Virginia Woolf
  • Tender is the Night¬†F Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Sun Also Rises¬†Earnest Hemingway
  • The Quiet American¬†Graham Greene
  • Wise Blood¬†Flannery O’Connor
  • Howard’s End¬†D. H. Lawrence
  • The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck
  • Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man¬†James Joyce*
  • Father Brown Stories G.K. Chesterton
  • Till We Have Faces¬†C.S. Lewis

1850s – 1900

  • Our Mutual Friend¬†Charles Dickens
  • North and South¬†Elizabeth Gaskell
  • The Moonstone¬†Wilkie Collins
  • The Bostonians¬†Henry James
  • My Antonia¬†Willa Cather
  • The Scarlet Letter¬†Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • The Brothers Karamazov¬†Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Anna Karenina¬†Leo Tolstoy
  • Huckleberry Finn¬†Mark Twain
  • Alice in Wonderland Lewis Carroll
  • Lilith¬†George MacDonald
  • Walden Henry David Thoreau35_1hb.jpg


  • Sense and Sensibility¬†Jane Austen
  • Frankenstein¬†Mary Shelley
  • Jane Eyre¬†Charlotte Bronte
  • Silas Marner¬†George Eliot
  • Ivanhoe¬†Sir Walter Scott
  • The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Writings Washington Irving
  • Any collection of short stories by Edgar Allen Poe
  • The Scarlet Letter¬†Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Moby Dick¬†Herman Melville* (or, for a taste, try a collection of his short stories)
  • Faust I¬†Goethe


  • Robinson Crusoe¬†Daniel Defoe
  • Gulliver’s Travels¬†Jonathan Swift
  • Pamela¬†Samuel Richardson
  • Life of Johnson James Boswell
  • Essays by¬†Thomas Paine
  • Rape of the Lock¬†Alexander Pope


  • Paradise Lost¬†John Milton
  • Tartuffe¬†Moliere
  • Revenger’s Tragedy¬†Thomas Middleton
  • Pilgrim’s Progress¬†John Bunyan
  • Don Quixote¬†Miguel de Cervantes
  • The Diary of Samuel Pepys
  • Of Plymouth Plantation¬†William Bradford


  • Macbeth¬†William Shakespeare
  • Doctor Faustus¬†Christopher Marlowe
  • Utopia¬†Thomas More


  • The Morte d’ Arthur¬†Thomas Malory
  • Decameron¬†Boccaccio

1300s and earlier

  • The Canterbury Tales¬†Geoffrey Chaucer
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  • Beowulf¬†
  • The Divine Comedy¬†Dante Alighieri

Myths and Folktales (oral traditions, collected at various times) images.jpeg

  • Brothers Grimm
  • Mabinogean¬†(Welsh)
  • Icelandic Sagas
  • Perrault’sFairy Tales
  • Andrew Lang’s colored Fairy Books (i.e.¬†The Blue Fairy Book, The Green Fairy Book)



This post was published accidentally incomplete; I’ve deleted the original, updated it, and am re-publishing it now.
Image sources:

Reading Classics: Accessible Books

Now that I’ve talked about¬†how¬†to read classics, I thought I’d give you a few lists of classics to read. First, I’ll give a list of more accessible books, and then in another post a list of books by time.


I should explain what I mean by accessible. ¬†To do this I’m going to pick on Virginia Woolf, an author I actually love. Just thought I’d say that first ūüôā¬†If you just want the list, scroll down.

Woolf is an author who is interested in what people are thinking, and because of this writes stories in which not much happens. She also tends to jump in and out of people’s heads, writing from first one, then another, then another character’s point of view, sometimes just for a few sentences. Although she does all this masterfully, if you are used to contemporary, plot-based, straightforward stories, this can be confusing. So I would class Woolf as a “less accessible” author. That is, I wouldn’t recommend she be the first classic writer you read.

As a different example, sometimes a writer can be less accessible because the time in which they write is further removed from us. So, Shakespeare is the ideal example. His plays are amazing, and his language is part of what makes them so; however, because it’s 400 years older, it’s just different enough to feel confusing at first.

So I would class Woolf and Shakespeare as “less accessible” authors. That is, I wouldn’t recommend they be the first classic writers you read. Though if you’re just inspired to read¬†Macbeth¬†or¬†Mrs. Dalloway,¬†go for it! Motivation is 8/10ths of it anyway.


Now, the random list of more accessible books, in no particular order. Usually anything by the named author is good. The list is based on my own reading, and I’ve tried to include a variety of kinds of books:

Lord of the Rings J.R.R. Tolkien

The Time Machine H.G. Wells

Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen

The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald

Tom Sawyer Mark Twain

Peter Pan J. M Barrie

Silas Marner George Eliot

Ethan Frome Edith Wharton

My Antonia Willa Cather

Cranford Elizabeth Gaskell

Whose Body? Dorothy L. Sayers

The Importance of Being Earnest Oscar Wilde