The senior comprehensive exam is taken in 010 East Pyne over two days in May, usually right after dean's date. Students are allowed up to four hours each test day in order to write and polish their essays. The exam runs from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm both days, so 120 minutes per segment. Students write their essays in pen on "blue books"; computers are not allowed.
Students place their student ID number on the exam, not their names, so that it is graded anonymously. The exams are then evaluated by the four members of the Comparative Literature faculty who designed the questions (who also remain anonymous). Two examiners grade each question without consulting each other, and the grades are averaged. In the case of a large discrepancy in their views, a third reader is consulted. Grades are delivered within seven days to the exam takers.
The exam is divided into three main parts:
- on the first day, two segments devoted to answering questions using texts the student has selected from the Reading Selection List,
- on the second day, one segment involving an explication de texte, and another segment attending to general questions of literary history, theory, and cross-cultural study. Reference to texts beyond those on the departmental reading list is possible.
Reading list segment. On the first day of the exam, students are asked to answer two of six questions by writing essays on texts from the Reading Selection List. Students do not bring their personalized reading list nor the physical books themselves; the department provides students with a copy of their previously submitted reading list and/or the entire Reading Selection List as an aide-memoire. You may reference in your first-day essays any text on the Reading Selection List; the purpose of your personal reading list is to ensure that you know a few texts well.
Typically, the exam questions begin with a short observation concerning some aspect of literature, and the students are asked to demonstrate the relevance of this remark to works they chose from the Reading Selection List. Occasionally the question stipulates that your texts must involve more than one genre or time period. Sometimes you are asked to evaluate the applicability of a statement over time. In general, there's some elasticity in the number of texts you are meant to address; "three or four" is by far the most common stipulation.
The question never names several specific texts on which you must focus. If the question asks you to discuss three texts but does not specify genre, you may want to select texts from more than one genre, rather than, say, three films only. That is, be diverse in your selections when you can. While it is not forbidden to mention relevant works not on the Reading Selection List, the best and most appropriate answers will demonstrate your knowledge of the texts on the list. Avoid plot summaries; focus on analyzing texts and making thematic and argumentative connections between them.
The questions often have this format: "[A critic] has offered the following statement about [some literature]. [Here follows some insight]. How well does his / her observation apply to any 3 or 4 works from the list?" Alternatively a question may begin, "It might be argued that poetry..." Recent examples of questions included, for instance, a question based on a quote from Peter Brooks on narrative. Other questions have engaged Kundera on the novel, Bakhtin on the dialogic novel, Barthes on modernity's obsession with the real, or The Handbook of Literary Terms on the lyric. As an example, a recent question was "Tragedy is a form originally associated with theater, but has been adapted by other genres as well. Comment on the tragic elements, especially in the character of the tragic protagonist, in three works, drawn from at least two of the following categories: drama, novel, and films."
It is generally recommended that students allocate their time as follows on the first day: question one, 90 minutes composing and 30 minutes revising; question two, 90 minutes composing and 30 minutes revising.
Explication de texte segment. The second day of the exam begins with the explication de texte (exegesis or interpretation of a literary passage). Students are provided with unidentified short literary passages (often poems) in various foreign languages and a definition of explication taken from the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics. You pick one of the passages (there will be only one passage in each language) and write an interpretive essay about it (in English), an exegesis. It is important (both for this exercise and for the other parts of the exam) that you be able to recognize basic poetic meters and structures. You do not need to guess who the author is, or what the title of the work is, but if you know, feel free to to mention this knowledge.
A text in every non-English language studied by seniors majoring in Comparative Literature that year will be provided. Languages with non-Roman alphabets will appear in those alphabets, although Chinese will appear in both simplified and traditional characters. Students equally strong in two or more literatures may survey the assembled passages at the beginning of the second day of the exam and choose at that moment the text they prefer to analyze. You may bring language dictionaries with you to the exam (they must be print dictionaries, not electronic ones).
It is generally recommended that students allocate their time as follows: explication de texte, 90 minutes composing and 30 minutes revising.
General segment. The final section of the exam consists of three questions, from which the student chooses one to which to respond. Like the questions from the first day, these sometimes begin with a short critical observation. These questions often have the purpose of examining your knowledge of literary genres and periods, and offering you a chance to comment upon the limits of such definitions. A crucial difference is that the answers do not necessarily involve works drawn from the Departmental Reading Selection List. Other texts that students have studied in courses or on their own may be addressed in this segment. Students are asked to avoid discussing the same texts on both days of the exam, and they are also cautioned against analyzing works which they have treated extensively in their senior theses.
An example of a question asked previously was "'Because civilizations are finite, in the life of each of them comes a moment when centers cease to hold. What keeps them at such time from disintegration is not legions but language. Such was the case with Rome, and before that, with Hellenic Greece. The job of holding at such times is done by the men from the provinces, the outskirts. Contrary to popular belief, the outskirts are not where the world ends—they are precisely where it unravels. That affects a language no less than an eye.' (Joseph Brodsky) Discuss at least one apsect of this citation with respect to two or three works from at least two different historical periods. You may wish to keep in mind some of the following questions: How does literature depict the moment in which 'centers cease to hold'? What role do 'the provinces' play at such a moment? What is the role of language in the disintegration' of civilization?"
It is generally recommended that students allocate their time as follows: general segment, 90 minutes composing and 30 minutes revising.
Previous questions. Students can peruse all the previous years' questions and the foreign-language passages in binders in the front office.
To bring to the exam. Remember to bring your PUID number and several pens, in case one runs out. Some food will be provided but four hours is long, so bring what you think you will need.