English Graduate Association at UC-Berkeley
oral examinations: sample questions

We asked graduate students to recall questions from their exams and have included the results below.

A. British

1. Old English

a. Given this passage you've just translated, identify a theme it expresses and discuss how that theme relates to several other texts.
b. Define the linguistic situation of OE. Define the poetic situation of OE; how do these two intersect to create the poetic records of OE that we have?
c. What's the earliest OE we have?
d. A few OE poems are very long, but most are quite short, or fragmentary. What's up with that? [I hated that question.]
e. Is Old Norse and Old English a viable combination for a scholar?

2. Middle English

a. Some scholars argue that little "literary" work survives in English from the turn of the fourteenth century. If you were going to teach a literature course roughly 1270-1330, what would you include and how would you justify its literary nature?
b. Give a literary history of ME. What texts and theories would you use to do so? [This, obviously, took forever, and Steven Justice eventually cut me off.] What alternate stories could we come up with?
c. What is gained by thinking of one of the "big 4" of Ricardian poets (Chaucer, Gower, Langland, and Pearl-poet) in tandem with one or more of the other 3? [When I chose Pearl-poet...] Can you profitably set Langland and the Pearl-poet next to each other?

3. 16th century/Early Renaissance

a. Give me a narrative about the 16th Century that isn't about the development of humanism.
b. Discuss Shakespeare's debts to the drama of the earlier 16th century, both tragedy and comedy.
c. Discuss the fate of Petrarchanism in 16th century sonnet sequences.
d. Tell me about Richard Hooker.
e. Discuss the Italian influence on 16th century English writing before Spenser.
f. 16th century [Jeff Knapp] If you had to teach a course on the sixteenth century, what text would you use to start and why? [I said More's Utopia] follow-up: How would you connect the topics of humanism and advice to princes to some other literary texts, e.g. Wyatt's poetry?
g. Tell me how the events in any book of the Faerie Queen connect to the virtue of that book.
h. How does The Shepherd's Calendar figure into your idea of Spenser's literary career? What particular points of plot would you want to discuss?
i. Do you think Shakespeare's representation of monarchy changed over time?
j. Is there a particular sixteenth century dramatist that you think is especially non-Shakespearean? Pick one play to discuss.

4. 17th century/Late Renaissance

a. What can you tell me about the genre of the masque?
b. Tell me a little bit about contemporary criticism of Paradise Lost. Is there one critic who has been most influential to you in your reading of PL? Is there one critic who, in your opinion, totally missed the PL boat?
c. In what ways is John Donne not representative of 17th century metaphysical poetry in general?
d. Discuss the nature and the role of 17th century prose.
e. Do you consider Dryden to be a part of the 17th century?
f. What distinguishes Jonson as playwright from Jonson as non-dramatic poet?
g. 17th century [Joel Altman] All these questions originated from my third field and discussions with JA about it, and then built upon each other and my answers. [He began by giving me a passage from Bacon's Instauratio Magna (which I could not identify) that discussed rhetoric, logic, and issues of directing speech to particular audiences, particular individuals.] Discuss the issues in this passage; then relate them more generally to other texts or authors. [I chose Jonson.]
h. How does Jonson negotiate the problems of different audiences? How does Jonson's problem of epideictic poetry relate to King James? Do you see a similar failure of language in Milton's poetry?
i. How would you characterize Shakespeare's Jacobean dramas?

5. 18th century/Restoration

6. 19th century/Romantic

a. How does the lyric operate in Romantic poetry?
b. If I were to teach a course on Romanticism's engagement with the French Revolution, which (one) text would I pick from the beginning of the Romantic period and which (one) text from the end of the period and why? What do these two different texts say about a change in the Romantics' attitude toward the Revolution?
c. Talk about the role of satire in Romantic poetry.
d. Identify the sonnet quoted in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (I couldn't; it was Gray's "Sonnet on the Death of Richard West") and discuss why Wordsworth quotes it there.
e. Discuss the significance of the journey and disappointment (upon getting there) in Romanticism.
f. What book does Frankenstein's monster learn to read from, and why/how is it significant.
g. Picked a Keats sonnet and made me discuss how it's significant (I was given a copy of the sonnet)

7. 19th century/Victorian

a. How does narrative voice affect the way we read one Victorian novel?
b. A lot of studies have been done on Victorian engagement with history. Can you discuss how history is treated in two historical novels written within the Victorian period? (And the examiner acknowledged that there weren't that many of those...) This question was followed by questions about Carlyle's idea of history and about Victorian poetry's treatment of poetic forms they inherited from the previous periods.
c. Discuss satire in three Victorian novels (using Middlemarch as one).
d. Choose three Victorian prose writers and discuss their opinions on and ideas about democracy.
e. Talk about three Victorian poems and their dependence/ use of the past. The examiner also broke into my answer to ask me about one author's prose (i.e. How does Arnold make use of history/ the classical era in his prose).
f. Examiner read a passage out loud about the novel as a genre, and then asked me to talk about what novels might the passage be referring to, and what novels might it not be referring to.
g. I was asked to discuss Pater in relation to Wilde and Wilde's politics, and then was asked about Shavian drama and politics.

8. 20th century/Contemporary

a. In Culture of Redemption, Leo Bersani accuses Ulysses of reinforcing heteronormativity in the final chapter. Do you agree?
b. What significant psychoanalytic themes do you see at work in Conrad? In Yeats?

B. American

1. Puritan/Early American

2. 19th century

a. In recent years, there has been a critical tendency to re-draw the map of nineteenth-century American literature by de-centering "the American Renaissance" and making "the Civil War" a central focus instead. Using three or four writers, and without necessarily referring to any actual critical trends that you may be aware of, explain what difference it would make to make the Civil War rather than the American Renaissance the central point in nineteenth-century American literary history.
b. My exam was more or less just commentary, on the model of, "Hey, isn't this fact neat? Could you comment?"
c. How did Whitman respond to feudal ideas?
d. Talk about 3 texts in which geography and expansionism play a role.

3. 20th century/Contemporary

a. What is the significance of Hurston's title, "Their Eyes Were Watching God?"
b. Why is their eyes were watching god called their eyes were watching god?
c. How would you define the literary "grotesque" using Sherwood Anderson (After an initial response about characters falling short of cultural ideals, examiner asked how I might apply my theory of cultural ideals to Lolita, to the Washington/DuBois debates, and to the representation of women in modernism.)
d. How come there are no Anglo authors on your list post Mailer? (This was an unusual situation where the examiner had asked to see my list when we had met to discuss the exam the week before.)

C. Third Field: Questions and Commentary

1. Your list assembles a lot of primary texts across several centuries; could you start by talking a bit about what unites them? which features gather them in the same place?

2. How does Bakhtin characterize novelistic discourse?

3. My third field was racial performance and melodrama, so my 19th-century and 20th-century examiners asked me how my third field related to certain authors (Melville, Cooper, Richard Wright). In fact, my third field dominated the whole oral exam. The question I remember that threw me was from my extra person in the room; he asked what I would say about Ezra Pound and his Chinese translations. It was at the very end so it didn't really hurt me, I think.
I think I passed because my examiners were really nice and knew what my strengths were. I also prepared certain readings of a few major authors, with my third field informing those readings, and was able to bring them up instantly when they asked me about specific texts. That definitely helped me when they asked follow-up questions to back up my arguments; I was able to supply details.

4. How would you explain Foucault's concept of "heterotopia" to undergraduate students?

5. My third field was really shitty and compiled too quickly. Basically, I included texts I could read in three months (which means that most of them were the texts I already read and knew well). The field was "Female Resistance to/through Marriage in Victorian Literature," but I can't really remember a concrete question... I was constantly prompted to speak about what exactly I'm doing with this field. One question I do remember would be this one: Is there a link between the resistance in plots of my chosen texts and generic features of those texts? My advice #1 to people is to really know their third fields well.

6. My examiners were sympathetic rather than antagonistic, so they tended to ask questions based upon my third-field interests, and questions based upon answers to previous questions.

7. Psychoanalytic theories of orality/anality: What is the difference between male and female fantasy in Freud's "A Child is Being Beaten"?

8. How does projection work differently for Freud, Lacan, and Klein?

9. 3rd field: The Rhetoric and Politics of Audience in Lucy Hutchinson, John Milton, and Katherine Philips [Victoria Kahn] What kind of relation do you see between criticism on the implied reader and earlier rhetorical treatises? What does one do that the other does not?
What have you found useful about the works on manuscript transmission and printing?
How would you characterize radicalism in this period? What kinds of works would you classify as radical? Do you find Nigel Smith's category of genre a useful means of discussing the poetry of different political groups, or of change over time? How do you see issues of audience at work in The Narrative of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson? Do you see Milton's conception of his audience changing over time? What effect does this have on Paradise Lost? From what test does the plagiarized prayer in Eikon Basilike come?