Sample Developing a Topic and Locating Sources Assignment: Questions about the Comprehensive Exams for UL Lafayette PhD Students in English

What follows are a topic proposal and annotated bibliography such as my students are asked to write for the T&S assignment during the Spring 2016 instructional term at Oklahoma State University. As is expected of student work, it treats an issue of its writer’s curriculum. It also adheres to the length requirements expressed to students (they are asked for 325 to 650 words in the proposal and several citations and brief paragraphs for the annotated bibliography, exclusive of heading, title, and page numbers; the proposal below is 388 words long when judged by those standards, and the annotations after the introductory paragraph are appropriate in content), although its formatting will necessarily differ from student submissions due to the differing medium. How the medium influences reading is something well worth considering as a classroom discussion, particularly for those students who are going into particularly writing- or design-intensive fields.

The text works in tandem with “Sample Topic Proposal: Why Not Have a Rhetoric Requirement among UL Lafayette PhD Students in English?” The text thereof is available here : https://elliottrwi.com/2016/01/14/sample-topic-proposal-why-not-have-a-rhetoric-requirement-among-ul-lafayette-phd-students-in-english/

To earn my doctorate in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, one of the many things I was asked to do was sit for a series of comprehensive exams. Like my contemporaries, I had to take four five-hour tests covering knowledge selected from among twelve separate areas of inquiry within English studies. The idea behind them, according to how the school’s Department of English describes them on its website as of 23 September 2015, is to facilitate both teaching and continued research, ensuring that students who complete the program adequately reflect the generalist orientation of the program. Successful completion of the exams is required before advancing to work on the dissertation in which the doctorate concludes, and continued presence in the program hinges on passing the exams. They are therefore of singular importance.

Because the comprehensive exams are as important as they are, they are perpetual subjects of discussion, both for those who sit for them and for those who administer and assess them. They are described by the Department in part as being meant to demonstrate students’ mastery of various areas in support of the generalist nature of the program, and the expressed requirements do tend toward that goal–but there are areas in which the comprehensive exams could align more closely to the goals of the Department and to its students.

Investigating the comprehensive exams could easily follow several paths. One would be to ask why the Area 1 requirement is framed as it is. Focusing on English languages and literatures prior to 1500, it effectively covers multiple distinct languages, as the differences between Beowulf and Chaucer attest, and the separation of the area at 1500 seems at odds with prevailing understandings of changes to the language–the medieval in England is usually held to end at 1485. Another question to ask could be why all students are not asked to sit for an exam in rhetoric. All students are asked to sit for exams in literature, and there is certainly nothing wrong with such a requirement, but more students will teach composition classes, and having a background in that sub-discipline would be helpful. A third possibility, although by no means the last, would be to ask why the comprehensive exams retain their traditional on-site, in-the-room form, when so many other schools and fields administer them differently.

Answering any such questions will benefit from recourse to the many discussions of curriculum and exams that go on. Various educational agencies and organizations will have something to say about how exams are conducted, as will disciplinary organizations. Publications of the National Council of Teachers of English and the Modern Language Association of America suggest themselves as useful initial avenues of inquiry. So do pieces from such databases as the Educational Resource Information Center. A few selections from simple keyword searches of such sources appear below.


Hassel, Holly, and Joanne Baird Giordano. “Occupy Writing Studies: Rethinking College Composition for the Needs of the Teaching Majority.” CCC 65.1 (September 2013): 117-39. Print.

The article argues against perceptions among writing scholars that devalue the work done by most writing teachers, who work in two-year and open-admission institutions. After defining a number of its terms, the authors note that studies of such teachers are not proportionate to the work they do. They continue with discussions of the two-year teaching environment, the focus of writing scholarship on four-year and elite institutions and the concomitant problems associated with community colleges, and what benefits would accrue to teachers and scholars from a reconsideration of such positions as they outline. The article concludes with a few recommendations of how to proceed, namely the support of research by and about two-year and open-admission institutions.

Of particular importance in the article is a quotation from a  Chronicle of Higher Education article by Schmidt, one noting that non-tenure-track faculty account for more than three quarters of teaching positions (119). While it does not discuss the comprehensive exam as an item, it does point towards the ubiquity of writing instruction by those with graduate degrees in English, irrespective of their specialization; it is a point the article reiterates. As such, it helps provide context and support for the need for graduate students in English to take exams and concomitant training in rhetoric, since it is from rhetoric that the practice of teaching writing emerges.


Nolan, Robert. E. “How Graduate Students of Adult and Continuing Education Are Assessed at the Doctoral Level.” Journal of Continuing Higher Education 50.3 (Fall 2002): 38-43. PDF file.

The article encourages discussion of the forms comprehensive examinations in doctoral coursework should take to increase completion rates and more accurately reflect the expectations placed on those who pursue advanced graduate study. After explicating then-current demographic data among graduate students, the piece lays out its purpose and summarizes previous studies of the topic. It then lays out its methods–noting the group surveyed and describing the survey used. Findings follow, identifying major trends about the timing, format, and intentions of comprehensive exams. The article concludes with notes that indicate no consensus among programs about how to hold comprehensive exams and what they ought to do.

The article may suffer somewhat from concerns of age, and repeated mentions of what various things “presumably” do weaken some of the rhetorical force of the piece. The brevity of the piece may also be of some concern. The article does, however, provide a useful summary of tendencies in how examinations have been conducted at the doctoral level across disciplines. In that regard, the article offers a useful starting point for discussion of any topic treating comprehensive exams at the doctoral level. As background material for framing investigation of the comprehensive exam, then, it is worth reading.


Ponder, Nicole, Sharon E. Beatty, and William Foxx. “Doctoral Comprehensive Exams in Marketing: Current Practices and Emerging Perspectives.” Journal of Marketing Education 26.3 (December 2004): 226-35. PDF file.

The authors identify and explain then-current and -emerging practices regarding doctoral comprehensive exams in United States marketing programs. After offering a general introduction to the topic, the authors review available literature on the topic, focusing largely on Bloom’s taxonomy. Methodology follows, with a survey described and the process of its dissemination, completion, and interpretation articulated. Results detailing the perceived purposes of doctoral comprehensive exams, structures of those exams, and changes to the latter are presented, and less traditional emergent structures–an “original papers” approach, an “extended take-home,” a “specialist,” and a “no exam–no paper” approach–are explicated. Results are discussed, and a conclusion suggesting that the traditional closed-book format of comprehensive exams will be less common in marketing schools finishes the article.

Although Ponder, Beatty, and Foxx discuss marketing, specifically, many of their assertions are likely applicable to other fields. Despite common perceptions of advanced education as liberal and socially deconstructive, academia tends to remain wedded to older structures, so the “traditional” examination structures discussed in the article are likely to be represented in other fields and programs entirely. If such points of correspondence are in place, then others may also be, making the conclusions reached by the article at least provisionally applicable to other areas of advanced education. Also notable in the article is the concern voiced by some faculty that changes to traditional exam structures “are depriving students of the opportunity to integrate a broad range of knowledge at a deeper level than they will ever have an opportunity to achieve again” (234), offering an unusual perspective on the comprehensive exam that may well bear examination.


Schafer, Joseph A., and Matthew J. Giblin. “Doctoral Comprehensive Exams: Standardization, Customization, and Everywhere in Between.” Journal of Criminal Justice Education 19.2 (July 2008): 275-89. PDF file.

The authors describe general tendencies regarding treatment of comprehensive exams by programs awarding doctoral degrees in criminal justice. The need for systematic study of criminal justice programs is articulated before the doctoral comprehensive exam is contextualized. Exam procedures are described and historicized. Study methods–largely focused on conducting surveys and interviews–are described and findings articulated, the latter focusing largely on the forms the exams take. Findings are subsequently discussed, identifying and commenting on the patterns that emerge from the study and treating relative merits of several exam formats. The article concludes with questions about the ongoing utility of curricular standards to both the discipline and the broader community the discipline serves.

Although Schafer and Giblin treat the discipline of criminal justice, specifically, they ground their article in information deriving from studies of other fields–notably including rhetoric–and assert that their own discipline largely follows the structures of others. The conclusions they reach about their own field therefore present themselves as able to be generalized back to those other fields, so that what they say about comprehensive exams can be applied to other areas than their own. Additionally, their relatively recent (to this writing) article allows their conclusions to be taken as more timely, and their relatively extensive bibliography offers useful insights as to further reading.

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