MFA Flashback: Comprehensive Exam

In addition to coursework, students in the MFA program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks must complete two tasks: compose a thesis and pass a comprehensive exam. 
What is this exam?
  • The exam is in February, and MFA students are expected to take it in their second year. It is a pass/ fail exam. If you fail, you can take the test again the following February. It is only held once a year and you must pass it in order to graduate. 
  • The test is composed of five questions that must each be answered with an essay. Students answer two questions in the morning session (9am – Noon) and three questions in the afternoon session (2pm – 5pm), all on a Saturday near the beginning of the Spring semester.
  • The exam itself is exhausting. The only book you are allowed to use is a dictionary. But you must reference (and quote if possible) several books in each essay response. 

At the end of the exam, upperclassmen were there with champagne and beer. There’s no better feeling than finishing an exam you’ve been studying for for a year and having people who have been through the process before (and know how difficult it is) there to cheer your success.
But here’s my story – I messed up with my comprehensive exam. I didn’t plan for it. 
There are fifty books on the comprehensive exam reading list, and in order to pass, you need to read most (if not all) of them. Usually professors try to use at least one comp book as a text for their class, but this will only get you so far. Students must read a substantial number of books in addition to their class readings, and with most graduate literature courses requiring you to read one book per week, this can become an overwhelming task. 
The first year for a graduate student is tough. Graduate level workshops are like that scene in Centerstage; everybody was the best writer in their undergraduate workshops. But here, in the graduate workshop, you’re a first-year. The first time your story gets workshopped at the graduate level is a serious wake up call. 
So after my first year of grad school, I was wiped out. (Did I mention we were living in the middle of Alaska with no car?) I was mentally and physically exhausted. That summer, I should have been reading for my comprehensive exam. But I couldn’t bring myself to read or write. My brain felt fried, so I went into regeneration mode. I rode my bike to Creamer’s Field to watch the sandhill cranes, developed an obsession with episodes of Mystery! and Globe Trekker that aired on public television.
I reasoned I’d study for comps during the winter break. I’d have nothing to do but read for a few weeks, and  the books would be fresh on my mind when it came time for the exam. 
Then we visited my family for the winter break, and time evaporated. As time drew near for the exam, I made a difficult decision – I decided not to take it in my 2nd year. If I took it while I was unprepared and failed, as I knew I would, then it would be much harder for me to take the exam when I was ready. 
I took the exam in my 3rd year and passed. The results of the test were given through individual letters from the chair of the department, placed in our grad mail boxes in the English office. I was on shift as a tutor in the Writing Center when word started going around that the letters had been delivered. There weren’t any students waiting to be tutored, no appointments scheduled – I can’t remember if I ran to the mailbox to get the letter or if my boyfriend picked it up for me. The letter was short, and without looking at it I can still remember one part: “in the end, I believe the most useful part of this process was the time you spent studying for the test.”
Me with my comps pass letter, 2010
And this is absolutely true. 
When I realized I wouldn’t be able to take the test on time, I got serious about studying for the next opportunity. The students in my year had formed a weekly study group, but I dropped out after a few sessions because I couldn’t keep up with the reading and I was embarrassed. 
Luckily, there were several fiction writers in the year below me who were up for the exams. We started meeting every Sunday at Alaska Coffee Roasting Company. We made a schedule of books to discuss and designated a discussion leader for each text.
I wish I had a photograph of the four of us studying for the exams. The coffeehouse was always crowded and noisy. There was never enough table space for our coffees, sandwiches, piles of books, the binders of notes we were compiling. Our screenwriting professor, Len Kammerling, was sometimes there with a different group, and he’d wave to us and stop and chat. Often I would spot David Marusek, the science fiction writer, with his laptop. I never worked up the courage to go over and say hi. There were impassioned conversations about Melville, talks that helped me better understand my mixed feelings for The House of Mirth, and gradually there was a comprehension of knowing the texts much better than I could have if I had studied for the test on my own. 
I’m glad I didn’t try to take the test my 2nd year, when I had not studied. My comps study group was one of the best learning environments I experienced during graduate school. And this experience converted me from a student who detested group projects, to a teacher who believed in their ability to inform texts and conversations on literature in a way that other modes of learning cannot. 
If you’re curious as to the 50 books I read for my comprehensive exam, here’s the 2012-2013 list. It changes a little every two years, some books are added and others dropped, but the scope and the spirit are pretty much the same. 

4 thoughts on “MFA Flashback: Comprehensive Exam

  1. a) What are your mixed feelings for the House of Mirth?
    b) Did you really read Moby Dick?
    c) Sort of sad that 'World Literature' is i) all men ii) largely European

  2. I really did not like the first half and then some of House of Mirth. Then we get to the scene where Lily goes to Gerty, just after Seldon has visited, and I realized how Wharton perfectly and subtly orchestrated the entire book to deliver that amazingly powerful sequence. The rest of the book I loved, and I've been meaning to reread the entire book to see if I was too harsh a critic the first time through.

    I didn't read Moby Dick. (Or Tom Jones.) But listening to my groupmates discuss Melville was fascinating, and made me want to read it. I'd only heard people mention Moby Dick before, not dig into the text with love and appreciation.

    Yeah. My favorite lit classes were ones that introduced me to non-US/ European authors – like Assia Djebar and Nawal El Saadawi. Murakami's Wild Sheep Chase was on the list the year I took the exam, and that's how I fell in love with his writing.

  3. Just got around to reading this… I wish I could go back in time and encourage you to say hi to Dave Marusek — he could not be sweeter and would have been happy to talk to you!

  4. Thanks Amy! I wish I could go back and encourage myself, too. I did speak to him a little at his book signing at Gulliver's, but that was more of an “I'm a fan” babble and run, not the “I'm a writer too” sit down over coffee for a few minutes. It's good to know he probably wouldn't object – next time, I'll say hello. 🙂

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