bluebookSo I’ve got a question, but it’ll take me a while to get to it.

A few years back, here at Syracuse, we overhauled our graduate curriculum, paying particular attention to the core curriculum and comprehensive examinations. When I arrived at Syracuse, our comps process was a fairly traditional major-minor-minor set up. The exams themselves were varied, in a well-intentioned attempt to account for a variety of writing processes, but the idea of generating 3 lists, writing, and being examined over the results is fairly standard practice. There are virtues to this model, not the least of which is that it gives students experience assembling bibliographies, time to read, and ideally, a more focused mastery over the field than perhaps can be achieved in coursework.

Nevertheless, there were problems. The written examination is a genre that only bears tangential resemblance to the writing that we do in our careers. If anything, it intensifies the event model of writing that seminar papers habituate in us (read, read, read, read, then write in a very short burst of eventfulness), rather than moving students towards a more integrated process of research/writing. We also found that, as an unfamiliar genre, the exams themselves produced no small amount of anxiety, and often took up more time than they perhaps deserved in a program where funding was limited. Finally, those kinds of exams are difficult to articulate with coursework–what exactly is being “tested” if the lists are student-generated and potentially have little to do with their prior 2 years of study?

We made some changes, and you can visit the CCR webpage on the topic if you’d like to see more detail than I’ll provide here. We shifted our comprehensives to more of a portfolio model, where the students complete a 2-part major exam on a shared list, produce an article that is publication-ready, and assemble a minor list’s worth of texts into an annotated bibliography that will ideally form the core of their dissertation’s bibliography. The faculty agreed that, when they are scheduled to teach core courses, they will include at least a few of the works from the shared list in their syllabi, so that the exams cover readings and ideas that students have been grappling with during their coursework. The exam questions are written and approved by the graduate faculty, students take the major exam just prior to the beginning of their third year, and their exams are read by a committee of those faculty from whom they’ve taken their core courses.

Speaking solely for myself, and as someone who played a role in this revision, I’m pretty happy with our new model, for a number of reasons. My question isn’t about the model itself, however, just one piece of it. You see, the first iteration of the shared “major” list was assembled pretty hastily. Students receive the list when they start the program, so that they know ahead of time what will be covered when they take their exams. Our overhaul took place in the early summer, and so we needed a list quickly, in time for that year’s cohort of incoming students. Since portions of the list would partially dictate the content of our six core courses, we simply asked the six faculty who had most recently taught those courses to suggest 7-8 works each (3-4 articles/chapters = 1 book = 1 work). It was not an ideal approach, but necessity was in this case invention’s parent. A few years later, having seen first-hand some of the weaknesses with this approach, we’re going to be revising our list (a link to which is available at the page linked above). But it’s really a tricky proposition. To wit:

Hypothesis 1: The shared, “major” list should provide graduate students with a representation of the discipline.

Hypothesis 1a: The major list should reflect the field, but especially the varied expertises of the faculty who will be rotating through the core courses, and evaluating the examinations themselves.

Hypothesis 2: The major list should reflect the work students undertake in their courses, and needs to do so insofar as faculty draw from the list for those course readings (Our current core: Composition, Ancient Rhetoric, Contemporary Rhetoric, Methods, Technology, Pedagogy).

Hypothesis 3: Works on the major list should lend themselves to intertextual conversations, insofar as most exam questions ask students to discuss multiple texts in their answers.

Hypothesis 4: Even as we acknowledge that the “categories” represented in the core are neither permanent nor stable, works on the list should help students draw connections among those categories and to areas of inquiry that aren’t explicitly covered in the core.

Hypothesis 5: The list should strive towards a balance of the canonical and the contemporary, and undergo regular revision as those categories shift. It should be responsive to the discipline.

Taken individually, each of these hypotheses seems eminently reasonable to me. Each operates under certain constraints, but I don’t look at any of these and say to myself that they don’t make sense in the context of our current model. We tried quite hard to reflect program standards as well as the immediate and long-term needs of our students, and to work towards an exam process that carefully managed the transition from coursework to dissertation.

Taken as a group, though, these hypotheses are making my brain hurt.

Intellectually, I know that the multiple functions of our exam process operate according to different sets of criteria, and that those criteria are not consistent among each other. The list is necessarily a reduction of a reduction (the core courses), but it’s not simply a question of representation because the list is also a tool for thinking that we ask our students to do. And more abstractly, it’s a site for shaping (and for revisiting) the values of our program in the form of debates over its contents. So it shouldn’t be easy.

My question isn’t really about what belongs on this list. Instead, I’m perplexed about how we can even begin. Seriously. When we designed the original list, it was divided into a set of much more constrained questions. My own task at the time was to provide a short list of works that would be appropriate for our course in contemporary rhetoric, texts from which I could teach that course. I didn’t think about anything other than the specific task. Easy, breezy. Approaching it as a global question, though, is a real conundrum to me.

What the heck should we do?

I’ll tell you what my semi-serious suggestion was: I suggested a variation on the desert island question, a variation that I used to use with my FYC courses. I would have them list what they thought were the five most important events to happen in their lifetimes, and then I would ask them to make a second list of the five most important events in their lives. It’s kind of a fun exercise that raises questions of personal vs public significance. So I said that we should ask all the faculty and graduate students to make 2 lists: first, list five texts that you assume just about everyone in the field has read; second, list five works that have been absolutely crucial for your own thinking. Then, aggregate those lists, and see where you’re at. I have no earthly idea what the next step would be, but we’d have something to work with and perhaps build on.

There’s something that feels a little wonky to me about proceeding this way, but at the same time, I’m struggling to come up with a better strategy.