The Comprehensive Exam

January 2006. Revised December 2006.

Not long after I took my graduate comprehensive exam, I toured the United States Supreme Court. Standing under a portrait of Roger Taney, the docent and I got to talking about the sectional crisis of the 1850s. The docent said that he had heard that very few Northerners were abolitionists, and that, therefore, the sectional crisis could not have been a debate about slavery. “Well,” I replied, “you might want to read Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men by Eric Foner. Foner argues that while few Northerners were eager to risk their lives to liberate Southern slaves, a great many believed that the expansion of slavery into the west would cut off opportunities for whites. You didn”t have to be an abolitionist to be anti-slavery.” Preparing for the exams had also prepared me for that conversation. For it is the job of the historian not just to recite names, dates, and facts, but to offer interpretations and, most importantly, authority for their pronouncements. The comprehensive exam, whether written or oral, is a means to train students in that art.

The ability to reel off the arguments of scholarly monographs is no mere parlor trick, but an essential skill for a professional historian. Teachers must devise syllabi, suggest background reading for students conducting research projects, and build lectures from secondary sources. Editors and reviewers must evaluate new work against existing scholarship. Curators and public historians must offer concise interpretations that are reasonably consistent with the latest findings. All of these tasks require both an inner, mental library and a means of adding to that library.

The first step toward historiographic mastery is to learn how to choose good books. In graduate seminars, your instructor will choose most of what you read, but do not accept that choice uncritically. As the course progresses, try to figure out why the instructor chose that set of books. What properties do individual books display? Are they all written by academic historians? Do they tell good stories? Tackle important events? Are they all recent works, or did the instructor select some classics? Also look at the range of books. Did your instructor deliberately choose books that covered different regions of the country, or perspectives of several ethnic, racial, or gender groups? Don”t be shy about asking your professor how he found the books on the syllabus. I can tell you, for example, that as I put together a syllabus on the history of technology, I read a lot of reviews in Technology and Culture. When it comes time for individualized study (“directed reaings” in Mason terminology) try out some techniques on your own. Which journals offer the most helpful reviews? Which university presses” catalogs make your mouth water? Are there any good academic bookstores where you can browse? (As far as I know, Northern Virginia doesn”t have any, but at least you can see what”s in stock at Labyrinth Books.)

Once you have chosen books, the next step is to read them. I have recorded my advice on reading and notetaking separately in “How to Read a History Book.” Graduate students need to read especially critically. It”s not enough to know what an author argues. You must know how she reached her conclusions, and whether you find her research and logic persuasive. Writing some kind of reaction–a reviewreading response, or something in between–to each book is crucial. So is frequent exposure to review essays, such as those published in the American Historical Reviewand Reviews in American History.

Unlike undergraduates who can safely forget everything they”ve read at the end of each semester, graduate students preparing for comps must remember what they”ve read, sometimes for years. A key technique is to talk about what you are reading, constantly. It is harder to arrange study groups at a commuter school like George Mason than at university where most graduate students live near campus. But it”s likely worth the effort. An even more significant aid to memory is synthesis. As you read each new book, you need to relate it to other books. For example, if you have already read Arnold Hirsch”s Making the Second Ghetto, and you are reading Thomas Sugrue”s Origins of the Urban Crisis, you should ask yourself how Sugrue extends, contradicts, or complicates Hirsch”s arguments. If you can”t remember Hirsch”s arguments, this is a great opportunity to review them.

When it comes to the exam itself, your first task is to demonstrate your knowledge of important events in American history. To do so, you must answer the question posed to you with appropriate examples. Usually you have a good deal of leeway, but not an infinite amount. For example, if I ask a question about the role of religion in American politics, you could write (or talk) about such varied subjects as abolitionism, Utah statehood, the election of 1928, and Engel v. Vitale. But if the answer mainly focuses on the evolution of the party system, with little reference to religion, I must conclude that you do not know much about the role of religion in American politics.

Your second task is to show off your knowledge of the various interpretations of those events by academic historians, including their research methodology and major debates among them. This is done by dropping names; a good written exam might well name one or two historians in each paragraph. If you are using the Manhattan Project as an example, it is not enough to know that the Manhattan Project absorbed many resources. You need to know how historians have interpreted its scale–how Thomas Hughes places it in the context of systems building, while Peter Bacon Hales emphasizes the effects on the workers employed and the landscapes consumed at Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Los Alamos. If this sounds artificial, keep reading Reviews in American History until it feels natural.

A third task is to move from specifics to generalities. If you have read Cronon’s Nature”s Metropolis, you should not only think about what it tells us about Chicago in the nineteenth century, but how Cronon”s approach illuminates the growth of the American economy.

In all of this, your goal is to go beyond summary of narratives and interpretations by presenting an original argument. No historian has read the same set of books as you have, with the same questions and preconceptions you brought to them. You have the chance to teach your teachers, telling them something about the past or the writing of history that only you could deduce. Your argument should be provocative, persuasive, grounded in the latest scholarship, and illustrated with a compelling narrative. This is not easy, but it is the same task faced by every professor who prepares a history lecture, and every historian cornered at a cocktail party. Your comprehensive exam is your chance to prove that you can do the same.

Note: The American Historical Review”s “review essays” present original theses that synthesize recent interpretations of events in the past and are good models for comprehensive exam essays. See, for example, Robert A. Nye, “Review Essay: Western Masculinities in War and Peace,” The American Historical Review, April 2007.