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Reading List Exam

Description of the Reading List Exam

Your Reading List Exam is the first step in preparing to write the thesis. You will spend the summer before your second year reading the items on your list. These items will give you knowledge of the methods, topics, and existing scholarship related to your anticipated thesis project.

Timeline for Second Semester and Exam

In early March during your second semester in the program, the MA Director will visit English 5530 (Theory) to introduce the reading exam and circulate a list of faculty by area of expertise. In the weeks after, you should arrange a meeting with the potential faculty chair of your Reading List Exam to discuss your ideas and their expectations for the exam.


April  1:            Begin designing your reading list and recruiting three committee members.

June 1:             Send your list and signed exam committee Form (.docx) to the English MA Director.

Early Aug:        Contact your committee members to schedule your exam.

                        Book your room through the department staff.

                        Record your introductory video and send it to your committee.

Sept 15:           Exam completion deadline (the second week of your third semester).  

                        Send signed form to MA Director, and begin work on formal thesis project.


Committee Structure

Your committee will be composed of three faculty from inside the English department. One will be designated the “chair” of the exam committee. While the committee members should be able to guide you in your list development and exam conversation, your second and third committee members are not necessarily required to have special expertise in your area. Your chair needs to be the subject area specialist on the committee.

You may change your department committee members after the reading exam has concluded, but if you can get a commitment from the same faculty member to chair your exam and your thesis, that will provide a beneficial continuity through your project. Talk to faculty members early about these roles, and be clear about what you’re asking of their participation, particularly about exam committee membership versus leadership.

Reading List Guidelines

The program expectation is that students prepare a reading list of at least 30 items. Items may include books, book chapters, and articles, as well as films and other media. Ideally, you want some mixture of sources on your list. Including many books may not always be helpful. Work with you chair to determine if an entire book is best, or if a book introduction or selected chapter would be better in some cases.

Reading exam lists need to be organized into at least three categories. Students in the literature track, for example, might adopt a genre/period/theory structure. Students in the rhetoric and composition track, for example, might adopt a theory/methodology/topic structure. Ultimately, the specific categories are up to you and your chair. Here (.docx) are some sample lists to show what categories students have used in the past.

Exam Scheduling and Preparatory Video

When scheduling your exam in early August, book your room for 90 minutes and expect the exam to take 60 to 75 minutes. Two weeks prior to your Reading List Exam, please record a 10-12 minute presentation (using Vidgrid, Vidyard, CloudApp, etc.) and send the recorded presentation to your committee. Use the presentation to introduce and synthesize your list, to give some rationale for its compilation, to outline some possible avenues for research suggested by the items included on your list, or to run through some combination of these topics. Your Reading Exam Chair can give you more information on what they would like to see included in your presentation. Your committee members will view the video well in advance of the exam, helping them generate the kinds of questions most useful in advancing your thinking about your project.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who can chair a reading exam committee?  Anyone in English with a terminal degree (MFA, PhD) can chair a reading exam committee, though you want to choose someone with expertise in your area of interest. If you plan to carry over your reading exam chair as your thesis committee chair (highly recommended), you will want to consult with the MA Director and read the regulations here to determine if you reading list chair is eligible to chair your thesis.

Who can serve on a reading exam committee?  Anyone from English or other departments at UW with an MA, MFA, or PhD can serve. In most cases, at least one of other two examiners will be from English. All three members of the committee may be from the English Department, if you want. But keep in mind that thesis committees require an outside member, so students are invited to use the Reading Exam to recruit a potential member outside the English Department.

How do I prepare for the exam? Read everything on your list and take notes over the summer. While you may not bring notes into the exam, these notes will help refresh your memory in the days before the exam. In addition to making a 10-12 minute recorded presentation, you should try to anticipate certain questions from your committee. Check with you second-year colleagues: they may recall some of the kinds of questions they received during their exams. Also, come with a mental list of questions you want to ask the committee. The exam is a two-way conversation.

What should I expect from the exam?  The reading exam is not an interrogation. The exam is rather a group brainstorming session. Your committee members will be genuinely interested in your material and will have enthusiastic questions to ask and reflections to share. For the first 45 minutes or so, the committee will ask you questions. If you can’t answer a question right away, don’t worry. You can ask for clarification or for questions to be rephrased. After the 45-ish minutes of Q&A is done, you will be temporarily excused from the meeting for 5 or 10 minutes while the committee confers about your performance. You will then be readmitted to the room and the committee will rate your performance on each list category (fail, pass, high pass), answer any questions you may have, and offer additional advice on the potential direction of your thesis.

Helpful links. While the method of evaluating your reading exam will depend on your chair, here is a Reading List Exam Rubric (.doc) that may be helpful. For students thinking ahead to their thesis, here is a Thesis Proposal template (.docx). Please keep in mind, though, that this proposal template may not be entirely suitable to some public-facing thesis portfolios nor Rhetoric and Composition theses—it is merely a general guide for you as you move forward.

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Master of Arts in English

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