How to Take an Oral Comprehensive Exam

February 2016

Doctoral programs in history have long demanded that students take oral qualifying exams, typically around the time they shift from coursework to more independent research. Though many students dread the experience, preparing for and taking the orals are among the most valuable experiences of graduate school, and they should provide skills and knowledge that will serve you both during the writing of a dissertation and in future historical endeavors.

Why take orals?

1. Get the big picture

Any project–dissertation, article, book, exhibit–requires entering the story in media res. It will likely cover a small slice of history, whether defined by chronology, geography, or the people involved. But to understand the broadest significance, you need to be able to place your story in context.

A lot of that means knowing what came before. As Lincoln himself suggested, you can’t understand the significance of the Battle of Gettysburg without knowing what happened four score and seven years earlier. The people whose history you will tell knew at least some of what had gone on before, and you must too, if you wish to understand their world.

And while the characters in your story did not know what would happen in the future, it can help if you do. If you are writing about the labor movement in the 1950s, you know, as your actors do not, that private sector unionism was about to enter a long decline. That can help you notice the weaknesses in the movement at its peak. And even more distant futures can heighten your senses. If you’ve explored the environmentalist movement of the 1970s, you will be better able to notice surprising precursors in documents concerning the damage wrought by the Erie Canal in the 1810s.

You should finish the orals process with a broad sense of the history of your region, so that you will understand and be able to convey the larger stories into which your particular narratives fit.

2. Find books you like

Whether they are working on research, teaching, or public history, historians spend a lot of time reading books. But they can’t read everything; each issue of the American Historical Review or Journal of American History reviews dozens or even hundreds of new titles. So historians must learn how to use databases, book reviews, library catalogs, publisher websites, and colleagues’ recommendations to find the books that are most useful to them. Only by doing this repeatedly can each historian determine what system will lead her to the most satisfying books.

Orals preparation is great practice for this. Once you’ve read dozens or hundreds of scholarly books, you’ll have a much better sense of what to look for in the future. Maybe you’ll decide to trust anything in Princeton’s series on Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America, or that got a good review in Reviews in American History. Perhaps you’ll avoid any books that lack pictures. Find the selection rules that work for you.

3. Learn how books are made

Finding satisfying books is particularly important to doctoral students, who are expected, after completing the orals, to map out their own book length project: the dissertation.

Dissertations can take many forms. Some are straight narratives, with one chapter following another chronologically. Some are more thematic, with several stand-alone chapters surrounding a central theme. Some are comparative, some are quantitative, some biographical. Some have pictures, some have maps, and some have detailed appendices.

The only way to know which format is right for you is to sample them all. And the way to do that is to read the dozens or hundreds of books required for orals, and to notice which ones make you happy, and which leave you bored or unpersuaded. Pay close attention to the format and style of your favorite books. How long are the chapters? How are they organized? What is the author’s voice?

Once you know what you are emulating, you can plan a dissertation most likely to keep you happy during the challenging years it will take to write.

4. Read efficiently

Just as there are many ways to pick books, there are many ways to get through them. But one way or the other, historians must be able to digest a lot of secondary material quickly.

There is no one best way to do this, and your challenge is to find a method that works for you. Do you take notes in the margins of a book or separately, on a computer? Do you read a book from start to finish, or read introduction, conclusion, and then body? Where is the best place for you to read, what kind of light, what time of day? Among your graduate peers, with whom are you best able to discuss a book in a way that allows you to master its content?

5. Speak professionally

Historians frequently must be able to explain what they know and don’t know about a subject. Sometimes they do this in written form, as when they explain on a grant application or book proposal how their proposed project will build on existing scholarship while answering new questions. But whether teaching a class, giving a public talk, leading a museum tour, or answering interview questions from a documentary filmmaker or a journalist, a historian often needs to think on his feet and provide a clear, concise answer that reflects the current scholarly knowledge on a topic.

Here’s a real example from my teaching. My undergraduate class in post–1945 United States history had read parts of Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, and a student asked why it seemed that the most violent white neighborhoods were Catholic. “Well,” I replied, “there’s a book called Parish Boundaries you might like. The author argues that Catholics were especially reluctant to leave their parishes, which were the center of so much of their lives. White Jews and Protestants could move their congregations out to the suburbs; Catholics could not. So while Catholics were no more or less racist than Jews and Protestants, they were more territorial.”

I think that was a good answer, because I had given not merely an explanation, but rather one with some scholarly authority behind it. And the student was satisfied.

(For the record, I did not have Parish Boundaries on my orals list, and have in fact yet to read the book. Which says something about the value of reading book reviews.)

How to prepare for orals

1. Make a list

The central object of orals preparation and the exam itself is your reading list. Just as every Jedi must learn to make her own lightsaber, you must craft a book list that will serve your needs.

Only your list isn’t really a single tool; it’s more of a toolkit. Maybe cookware, or surgical instruments, or bike tools—you pick the metaphor. You need to understand what each tool does (I clamp off veins with this, and tighten a brake cable with that) and how you might apply it to a new challenge. (They sold this as a crepe pan, but it works great for quesadillas.) So throughout your preparations, work with your committee to identify challenges and the tools that can address them.

2. Write a timeline

One way to identify those challenges, and to keep your reading straight in your head, is that old-fashioned tool: a timeline.

Major wars are so transformative that every historian of the United States needs some sense of why 1783, 1815, 1848, 1865, 1898, 1918, 1945, and 1973 matter. (As I write this list, I realize that historians tend to refer more to the ends of wars rather than the beginnings. The biggest exception might be 1861, since it marks the end of the “antebellum” period. Or 1917, since it can mark the start of America’s role as a world power.)

Beyond that, think about the dates that matter for your version of U.S. history, an exercise known as periodization. Did Reconstruction end in 1877, or would you claim it died with Lincoln in 1865, or kept going into the 1890s? Did the New Deal so reconfigure the American state that we should list 1933 or 1935 as among the big dates? Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World imagined that Henry Ford’s installation of an assembly line in 1914 was so important that future generations would date their calendars from that event, judging it more important than the birth of Jesus. Should we? What are the most important dates for Indians, for African Americans, for women? All of this should emerge from your reading, so watch for the choices the historians make about what dates and events to include or deepmhasize. For instance, in Nature’s Metropolis, Cronon barely mentions the Civil War. How does that shape your view of the nineteenth century?

3. Learn the argument of each book

Knowing a book’s central argument (as with the Parish Boundaries example above) is not sufficient preparation, since you might get a follow up question about the book’s limits, sources, and the like. But knowing that argument is necessary, for every book on your list. Many doctoral students prepare brief summaries of each book they read, and some of these can be found online. See, for example, Cameron Blevins’s U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries, and my own students’ shared notes at the Mason Historiographiki. Short book reviews in journals can be helpful models as well. See Reverse Engineering for Historians.

To go back to the toolkit metaphor, know each book’s functions, both as intended by its creator, and by you.

4. Identify conversations among books.

It is not enough to know what each book argues; you need to be able to locate works as contributions to an ongoing conversation. Historians often drop clues in their subtitles. Consider these three from my spring 2016 syllabus:

  • Flamm, Michael W. Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

  • Shermer, Elizabeth Tandy. Sunbelt Capitalism: Phoenix and the Transformation of American Politics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

  • Strub, Whitney. Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

These authors think that the specific topics of riots, Phoenix, and porn can teach us something about bigger issues, like “the crisis of liberalism,” “the transformation of American politics,” and “the rise of the New Right.” (So do I, which is why I assigned them.) But how do the books support these claims? How do they support, challenge, or complicate other books on those broader subjects?

Good models for this kind of thinking can be found in the introductions of books, where historians often explain the significance of their project in reference to previous scholarship, and in historiographical essays, such as those published in the American Historical Review.

5. Develop some arguments of your own

It’s nice to know what the authors on your list have argued, and how various reviewers have assessed those arguments. But unless you’ve developed some original arguments, you will be humiliated in a bar in front of Minnie Driver.

A good way to start is to review your list and identify the books you loved, the ones you’ll remember fondly in 20 years, that will shape everything you read on that topic. What about them makes them great? Then pick some books you hate. What made you hate them? Too much theory? Too many white guys? Not enough transnational comparison?

As I noted above, thinking along these lines will help you choose books when it’s time to create a syllabus, exhibit script, website, or film. And picking favorites will also help you plan your own dissertation, since you will know what kinds of claims, sources, and chapter structures you want to emulate, and what to avoid. So this is a good reminder that orals preparation is really professional preparation.

6. Develop some narratives of your own

Professor Richard Bushman used to ask his students to prepare five lectures on early American history, based on the books on their list. If you do this for each major period, you’ll not only be well prepared for orals, but you’ll have done much of the work needed to teach an introductory survey course. Even if you don’t want to go through all the work of finalizing lectures, you might still imagine that you have been asked to take on that task, and consider which lectures you’d give, which books you’d consult for each lecture, and how the argument of the lecture would proceed. If you are ever asked to teach an undergraduate survey, you will have a head start on the task. And even if you don’t, you’ll have a version of the main story you’d like to tell to whichever audience you face.

7. Develop some questions of your own

Perhaps the best way to know you are ready for orals is that you can craft your own orals questions. Start by noting the biggest questions asked by the historians you have read. When did the Irish become white? Why did the American electorate reject Goldwater in 1964 but embrace Reagan in 1980? What have been the biggest changes to our constitutional system since 1789?

When you have a feel for these sorts of questions, try writing some of your own. What questions would you most want to be asked? What questions would trouble you the most? You can expect questions tailored to your list, so if you are long on women’s history and short on diplomacy, you probably need not worry about extremely complex questions about U.S. foreign policy. (Though of course everyone should have a working knowledge of the Pig War of 1859.) So think about what questions you might be asked based on the books you’ve chosen.

How to take orals

Think of the exam itself as an opportunity to show off your mastery off all the preparatory tasks. You will need to identify the arguments that historians have made, and the debates among them. You will need to comment on the forms of storytelling used by these scholars, their sources and their framing. And, ideally, you will express your own views on these debates. So listen to each question, think for a moment, and then reply in a way that both shows your command of what you’ve read and your ability to weigh its merits.

There’s a simple formula for doing this: “Historian A says this. Historian B says that. I think this.”

This formula allows for multiple variations:

  • A is right. B is just wrong.

  • A and B are both wrong.

  • A and B agree but don’t know it.

  • A and B ask different questions. Both are valuable.

  • A could learn from B’s use of these sources. B could learn from A’s use of theory.

  • I loved A, but if I were assigning a book for a class, I’d say B.

  • Neither A nor B answer question X. We could use more research on that.

And that, quite frankly, is how historians talk to each other. Occasionally trashing a book, but more commonly considering its virtues, its uses, its limits, and, most importantly for orals, its relation to other texts.

Or, as Cecil Adams put it in a line that could be used to answer every orals question ever asked, “This is just the kind of thing that fascinates historians, something you may want to consider next time a historian asks you out for a date.”

Further reading