Thursday, November 20, 2008

On the other side of the table

As I mentioned in an earlier posting, I was on my first graduate comprehensive examination committee. The student is an M.A. candidate who has completed her coursework and is preparing his thesis proposal. For the exam, she develops a statement and a list of texts that represent a wide array of world literature in terms of place, period, language, and genre. Her list, which I first saw a couple of months ago, is focused on gender and the idea of “wayward women.” The committee, which consists of me and two colleagues, prepared a series of questions for the written portion of the examination, which she took last week. The three of us read her exam and then met for the oral portion of the exam earlier this week. We spent close to an hour asking questions about her written responses and other texts on her list.

The written responses were full of detail but, I thought and others agreed, a bit limited analytically. During the oral exam, things initially went much the same. We would ask her something very specific about the text and she would go on to provide a detailed summary of the texts but really said little about the specific question we were asking (in my case about the narrative voice in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior). But through follow ups questions, we drew her out into what I felt were some rather sophisticated commentaries on all of the works.

She left the room and the three of us discussed her briefly. It was pretty clear that she had passed the exam, and all we need to decide is pass or fail. We raised the concerns we had and the department chair offered her explanation. This student, like most of our graduate students, is a product of the national system. She is a graduate of Cairo University, which is, with 200,000 students, I believe, one of the largest campuses in the world. (I was there for a conference a few weeks ago—fascinating place.) Cairo University is an excellent school; it shares many faculty members with AUC. But the style of education is different. There is an emphasis on rote learning, rather than the kinds of critical analysis that characterize literary study at a US-style liberal arts college. So, at least according the chair, she has been trained to produce these kinds of summaries. And she is quite good at it. She has an extraordinary memory and is able to quote extensively off the top of her head. When directed, however, she can offer more insights. She wasn’t being deliberately evasive. Rather she was discussing the texts in the manner in which she had been trained.

After about five minutes of discussion among ourselves, we invited her back into the room and offered our congratulations along with some suggestions for her future work. Everyone left smiling.

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