Orals Tips

It’s that time again, my friends. One more post on things I’ve learned from grad school, this time on a specific academic subject. Since completing my orals was the greatest triumph of my life so far, I’m going to give you all some tips I’ve gleaned from the process! Granted, they’ll apply primarily to oral exams in history graduate programs, but maybe you’ll find them useful in other fields too 😀

Alright, my first piece of advice:

1: Choosing your Reading Lists: Go online and look up recently published books mentioned or reviewed in the scholarly journals of your field from the past three years or so.

This might require a bit of explanation. See, when I was first preparing for my orals, and I mean right when I was beginning, I was told to try and come up with a list myself. After all, a good orals list, even one on a general subject (19th century American history, international abolitionism, etc.) ought to be tailored to the individual student! So what I did was look at the syllabuses of the courses I had taken previously, as well as some orals lists other folks had posted online (like I did, remember?), and picked out bunches of books that either seemed important/well regarded or directly relevant to my interests.

This was good for a start, but not exactly perfect. I won’t regale you all with a tl;dr explanation of historiography, but for now suffice it to say that one of the purposes of an oral exam in history is t0 discern both how historians have changed their writing and interpretations over time *and* what sorts of writing and interpretations are popular right now. So while my minors oral lists were pretty good and required only minimal modification, my professor for the majors field (19th cen American History) told me I needed some more recent, cutting-edge books that weren’t published too long ago (late 2014/early 2015, when I was doing this).

So, how to discern what was recent or cutting edge? Well, as any of you who’ve taken college history classes have probably heard of JSTOR, which gives you access to a lot of scholarly journals, like The Journal of American History or Reviews in American History. Those publications (as can be discerned from the name of the second one) review a lot of history books, especially those that just came out! So what I did was go to the actual websites of the journals themselves, which had tables of contents (though not full articles) from every issue they released. I skipped to the book review sections of those tables of contents for the most recent issues (all of them from 2015 to 2011, pretty much–for instance, the listing for the Journal of American History looked like this: http://www.journalofamericanhistory.org/issues/), pored through them to see if any books seemed very good or particularly relevant to my interests, then added them to my list!

Another thing I did was ransack the websites of the academic publishing houses. Again, if you’ve taken many history courses in college, you probably remember that most if not all of your assigned readings and textbooks were published by Harvard University Press, or the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Press, or other university presses. So I poked around their websites, checking out the works on their “recently published” lists from the past few years, and took the ones which seemed most relevant to my interests. This plan worked out quite well, my prof told me he was very impressed with my choices! 😀

My next three pieces of advice, for actually studying for and taking the exams:

2: Meet with your professors regularly to talk about your reading.

As I mentioned in my previous entry, this helped me out so much. Now, some professors might not be willing to do this, but mine were, and if yours were the same, TAKE THEM UP ON THE OFFER! This has the practical effect of turning a big scary comprehensive exam with two hundred books into much more manageable, much less stressful ‘mini-exams,’ I guess, of ten books a week. I’d meet with one professor every Monday, another every Tuesday, and another about once a month (he was reaaaaly busy at the time) to discuss my readings. There, they’d ask me questions about it, giving me what were essentially little orals exams in and of themselves. There was much less pressure for these, though, because not only did I have to read fewer books (psychologically, 10 books a week doesn’t seem as intimidating as 200, even over the course of months), but they were also lenient with me and allowed me to make mistakes since it was just practice. Thus, I ended up getting better and better as the weeks passed and I took more ‘mini-exams,’ making fewer mistakes each time until the day of the orals actually came, where I breezed through them. Definitely a win for me!

3: Making your own questions can be super helpful!

This is what all my professors asked me to do, and this really helped. In the case of my majors field, my prof told me to come to every meeting prepared to discuss how I might incorporate the books I read into a 19th century history college lecture course I might make–which ones I’d assign as reading for my students, which ones I’d incorporate into my lectures, and why. For my International Abolitionism and 20th Century, the questions had a bit more of an ‘integrative’ aspect to them. Let me show you a few.  Remember, these are the questions I made and brought in to my teachers, and I chose the ones they liked most.

International abolitionism:

“The works you’ve read so far place a strong emphasis on the international nature of the Atlantic Slave System and the connections (both economic and ideological) between the American continents, the islands of the New World, and Europe. Do you think the arguments of these books challenge each other or build off of each other? Can you identify any trends in the conclusions they reach?”

“Nearly all of the books and articles you’ve read this week examine the extent and role of African cultural survival in the New World. Summarize the ways in which your authors claim African culture survived the trip over the Atlantic, evidenced itself in how post-Middle Passage and creole Africans lived, and how such cultural survivals influenced their relations with each other and their masters. How would you say an understanding of African cultural survival contributes to the historiography and enriches our understanding of the history of the Americas as a whole?”

“Nearly all the material you’ve read this week examines the ways the Haitian revolution influenced and was influenced by other freedom struggles across the globe. Briefly summarize how scholars have assessed the impact of the French revolution on the Haitian one, and how they have assessed the Haitian revolution’s influence on the destruction (or retrenchment) of slavery elsewhere. Why do you think the question of influences has been such a contentious issue in the historiography?”

“Professor Rugemer titled his book “The Problem of Emancipation.” What do you think he meant by that, and how might the other historians you’ve read understand it? Describe some of the ways historians have claimed emancipation posed problems—for the enslaved, needing to adapt to their new freedoms, for their former masters, who also needed to adapt to the same, and even for people in other countries who were influenced by emancipations in the Caribbean.”

20th Century American History:

“This question focuses on the Populist and Progressive sections: Where have the historians you have read so far placed the origins and sources of appeal for these movements? Have there been changes in the way historians located the sources of Populist and Progressive energy, and if so, to what would you attribute these changes?”
“This question focuses on Section III, gender and race: How do the several authors explain the process of race-making in the early twentieth century, and what sorts of methodologies did they use to arrive at their conclusions and interpretations?”

“This question also focuses on the section on gender and race: Several of the works you’ve read in this section, such as Gender and Jim Crow and The Chinatown Trunk Mystery, address the intersection of racial formation and gendered expectation in their analysis. How do they assert these issues “intersect?” What would you say are the advantages of this approach in understanding early 20th century American society and culture? Does it fill any gaps the preceding historiography had left unexplored? ”

“This question focuses on the New Deal/WWII Era: How have historians characterized the construction of the New Deal Coalition and the more general political shifts of Roosevelt’s administration, and how have they assessed the New Deal’s social effects, both immediately and in the long term?”

“For the Cold War section: What connections have the historians you’ve read found between American foreign policy and American domestic legislation? Also, have they found any connections between the larger “struggle against communism” and American religion, gender roles, and race relations?”

“For the section on Civil Rights Movement: What role does the concept of “intersectionality” play in the histories you’ve read? How have historians assessed the interplay between religion, race, and gender in both the struggle against segregation and the attempt by its defenders to maintain it?”

These questions ended up being similar to (though not exactly the same) as the questions I would be asked in the orals exams themselves, and it was fun making them anyways, so I highly recommend it! I’ll get to the actual orals questions in my fifth and final hint, though–but before we leave this section, in preparation I’d like you to note 2 things. First, these questions are very general and conceptual, and don’t focus too much on specifics. I wouldn’t call them “abstract,” but certainly, none of them are about nitty gritty like “what does this author say on page x of his book?” or “What event happened on date y?” Instead, they’re more like, “How do these books interact with each other? What do you make of various kinds of methodologies, choices in approaching different subject matters, etc. historians use?” In short, these questions are less about the brute facts of history and more about thinking like a historian–the actual craftsmanship of making a historical argument, rather than just the facts you’d build an argument on.

4: Skimming is good, as getting the gist of a book’s argument and use of evidence is the most important thing, but also try to remember one or two specific details from the book.

While it would be nice to absolutely dissect every book on a reading list and memorize every word of every chapter, for three orals exams where you have to read nearly two hundred books, that’s simply not practical. It would take years to do that, and you only have a year at most, more likely six months. Thus, you have to learn the art of reading quickly to get the most important arguments of a book. I received a lot of good advice on doing this from many sources, which I repost here for your benefit:

http://historyprofessor.org/exams/the-comprehensive-exam/

http://www.elizabethcovart.com/uncommonplace-book/history-ph-d-comprehensive-or-qualifying-exam-notes-and-study-tips/

In my case, following some of the above advice, I read the introduction and conclusion chapters of each of my books reasonably thoroughly and skimmed over the other chapters, just making sure to get the ‘thesis’ of each one (that is to say, its main argument), which was enough for me to figure out what the book wanted to contribute to the scholarship and how it related to the other books on my list–the most important things for oral exams! However, I also think you should pay attention while you’re skimming and try to pick out, or at least remember, one or two memorable passages or described incidents from each book. This will help give your answers to future questions a little spice of specificity that may really help you.

Here’s an example I’ll give from my orals studying. During the week I was reading up on Native American history during the 19th century, one of the books I’d been assigned was Cathleen Cahill’s Federal Fathers and Mothers. I had the basic argument of the book down (one sentence tl;dr: It’s a social history of government organizations like the Bureau of Native American affairs; Native Americans themselves felt ambivalent about it and some wanted to be rid of it while others actually thought they could use it for their own benefit, and it represented both employment opportunities for women and non-whites and an experiment in new forms of governance), but my professor asked me a question of his own. He said, “OK, Gunlord-kun, do you think there were any instances of Native American peoples resisting the Bureau of Indian Affairs? Give an example from Cahill’s book.”

Now, the first thing you’ll notice is that this question is pretty open ended. Rest assured, that was entirely intentional on my prof’s part. In general, and I’ll describe this in more depth in my next section, you have a good bit of leeway when it comes to questions–in an oral exams, there are many, perhaps even multitudes of right answers. You have options.

To make the best use of those options, however, it’s very wise to have a handle on at least one specific passage from each of your readings. Here’s the tl;dr version of my answer to my prof’s question:

“I recall one instance near the middle of the book where parents and children made protests to one of the government educational agencies over what they perceived to be a teacher mistreating their children and favoring his own; Cahill uses the incident to prove (and I agree with this) that Native Americans didn’t just submit to whatever even well-intentioned government agencies gave them but would raise their voices and make themselves heard if they felt their kids weren’t getting a good education.”

My prof was pretty happy with this explanation. Now, you can probably tell that he was being pretty lenient. I didn’t remember the exact page number (it was p. 102), but that’s not so important, nobody will expect you to remember exact page numbers on the exam. I also couldn’t remember the name of the teacher (Joseph Este), but in that case the question was asked during one of the practice sessions, so again my prof was lenient with me, though in the actual exam you’ll want to remember those little details, if not exact page numbers 🙂

However, in case you weren’t able to tell already, two more important things about this answer were that A: It referenced a specific incident described in the book, and B: there were a lot of other incidents I could have used. They weren’t at the top of my head at the time, but looking back on it, I could have mentioned Lakota parents protesting teachers who hit their children (p. 77), or how Native Americans took jobs with government agencies trying to assimilate them in order to subvert such assimilation schemes from the inside (on p. 109, Cahill mentions that many Native Americans joined police forces on the reservations in order to keep the U.S military out). I didn’t need to mention all or even any of those other examples, though–just one I was barely able to remember was enough to satisfy my examiner! So when you’re taking your oral exams, try to do the same; while a grasp of a book’s general argument is an absolute necessity, remembering one or two piquant passages or described incidents will prove to your professors that you can also recall specific events as well–and you don’t need to prove you can remember *every* one in a book, just one or two should be enough for them. 😀

Finally, here’s my fifth piece of advice, for actually taking the exam:

5: Think on your feet! You *will* have to do at least a little bit of improvisation.And when you do, try to remember a couple of specific incidents or arguments to draw on!

As I said, thanks to my excellent preparation and all the meetings I had with my profs, the oral exams themselves weren’t all that surprising. That doesn’t mean absolutely *nothing* was unexpected, though. On the day of the exam, they posed a couple questions that weren’t totally out of left field and were broadly similar to the ones I’d made, but which I still wasn’t 100% prepared for beforehand. Let me give you an example, it was one of the starting questions my 20th century American history–nothing hard or esoteric, but just something I had to think about a little before I answered:

“Tell me about a major theme you think runs through 20th century American history.”

Again, this was an obvious question that fit totally within the context of an orals exam. Even so, I stumbled a little bit and needed to think…but I also knew I couldn’t give it as much thought was I wanted, since these exams *were* timed–I only had a half hour for my 20th century exam, a half hour for my International Abolitionism section, and an hour for my major (19th century history). So I had to think fast, and I had to think on my feet! So the answer I gave may not have been as good as I wanted, but it was good enough, so while I have a ways to go before becoming an Improvisation Master, I had a sufficient amount of improvisation skills to pass, which is all that matters 😀 For the record, here’s (again) the tl;dr version of my answer:

“(after a few seconds of “hmm” and a pause). I would say one of the main themes of 20th century American history, which I would hope to get across to my students when teaching it, would be “unexpectedness.” I mean this in both terms of hindsight and during the time period itself. For the former, a lot of students today think, for instance, the Scopes trial was just an example of science and religion in conflict, but as Michael Kazin demonstrated in his biography of William Jennings Bryan, the truth is actually a little more complicated and somewhat unexpected. Bryan wasn’t opposed to Darwinism on strictly religious grounds but because he was afraid it would lead to a ruthless worldview that spurned compassion for the poor and unfortunate, which students today might find a bit surprising and unexpected. And from the perspective of historical actors themselves, I’d say that many plans concocted by Americans ended up having highly unexpected effects. For instance, as Jonathan Herzog notes in The Spiritual Industrial Complex, politicians and industrialists encouraged American religious revivalism to combat what they saw to be an enemy secular “religion” in the form of Communism, but they hadn’t anticipated that after the cold war was over, the revivals they’d helped foster also led to the rise of the Religious Right. As these incidents demonstrate, and I hope my students would learn, history (and life) is full of unexpected surprises.”

Now, today, I’d give a different answer, but hindsight is always 20/20 For what it’s worth, if I were taking the exam today I would probably say a major theme in 20th century American history is the growth of government. But that’s neither here nor there. The important thing is that my prof was happy with my answer and thought it was pretty good. It may not have been perfect, but I was able to connect it to specific readings, proving I had a grasp of the books on my list. It goes back to what I said in note #4 about the importance of remembering a couple specific details here and there. For this question, I didn’t have to remember a specific incident, but I did have to remember the specific arguments of a couple of books. So when you’re taking your oral exams, just remember that good answers won’t be *too* general and will refer back to particular readings, if you can. 😀

A little bit of quick thinking can also rescue you from mistakes and other mishaps. I’ll use an example from my 19th century orals exam. My professor said this:

“Gunlord-kun, many people say history is an art and craft as well as a profession. Out of all the books I’ve had you read for the past month, which ones do you think best demonstrate the historian as a craftsman and artist? Which ones do you think really illustrate the sort of understanding and empathy with his subjects a good historian should have?”

Now, this question was pretty easy for me. It wasn’t one that I had given before, but it was exactly the sort of thing I was expecting, and I had the perfect answer. I *was* going to mention Levine’s Black Culture, Black Consciousness, which offered a very sympathetic, empathetic examination of black culture, like songs, folk tales, that sort of thing.

But…I had a brain fart and completely forgot the author and name of the book right in the middle of the exam! I remembered the right answer but it’d look very silly if I couldn’t remember where it was coming from!

I was in a bit of a pickle and I needed to think fast. By good fortune, I did remember an argument Leon Litwack made in Been in the Storm So Long. He emphasized the uncertainty black folks felt in the aftermath of the Civil War and emancipation and how they may have been unwilling to take a big risk in moving somewhere else immediately; hence why so many slaves stayed with their former masters. The empathy and understanding he had for the former slaves helped him refute racist or patronizing assertions that slaves didn’t immediately abandon their masters after emancipation because they were “servile” or because they loved their ex-owners so much.

I told this to my professor, and he was actually pretty impressed with it! He said, “Gunlord-kun, that wasn’t an answer I’d been expecting or thought of much before, but you made a pretty strong case! I’ll definitely give you some extra points for your inventiveness!”

So yeah, major 😀 right there. An ability to think on my feet, improvise a little bit, and work around an unexpected setback turned what could have been a defeat into a pretty handy victory! And while I can’t guarantee everyone will have the same results on their oral exams, I do think it’s fair to say that some quick thinking, improvisation, and of course, never giving up will be at least somewhat useful for most people in grad school. Or elsewhere, for that matter! 😉

Well, that about does it for this week. And I think it sums up my grad school experiences in general! Haha, now that it’s done, I’m not sure what I’ll do for next week. Maybe a review of Necrom, which I just finished last night. We’ll see. Till then, adios!

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