Developing Reading Lists
by Jennifer Davies
Some departments require that you construct your own reading lists. This can sometimes be a daunting task. Consider the following tips as you think about how to organize the knowledge for which you will be responsible:
Are the lists supposed to be surveys or can you tailor them more closely around a body of knowledge that is interesting or useful to you? I found that I entered my exams having at least a general idea of what I wanted to write my dissertation on, and so I was able to craft lists that set up a foundation for study in three general areas (American Studies, Film Theory, and Theories of the Body) but which also contained texts specific to my dissertation interests (postwar fiction and Cold War culture, Science Fiction and horror film, theories of the grotesque). This made the reading more interesting for me, allowed me to answer specific questions on both the oral and the written which were based around a subject that I knew well and enjoyed, and also set up an excellent research schedule for my dissertation. Not all exams fall together quite so neatly, however. The point is, the more specific you can make your lists (while at the same time making sure to cover seminal texts in your discipline) the better you will be prepared come exam time.
How do you figure out which texts to choose? An obvious resource is the library. I had a general idea of what the most important texts in each of my three fields were and so I took some time to pore over the bibliographies of these texts. Those texts in turn led to other texts. This served to remind me of pertinent texts that I had read but forgotten about and also set up different frameworks around which the lists could be divided and subdivided. Another good resource is, of course, book reviews (particularly if you are required to be familiar with the most up-to-date theories, such as in Information Science and Business). These can be fairly easily accessed via the library’s databases. Keep organized files of articles and book reviews; these can come in handy when you prepare to review before the exams.
Create statements of purpose for each list and divide the lists into sublists if possible. I found it most useful to create a lengthy paragraph at the beginning of each list that hypothesized why that list would be useful or interesting. This is a good strategy even if the lists are provided for you; it helps to keep the general ideas and purpose of your reading in mind so that you don’t become too bogged down in details. I then organized my list into sublists according to broad themes or schools of thought, and prepared paragraphs that explained why I wanted to study these themes/authors/texts, how they related to the larger list, and how they related to the goal of the exam process as a whole.
Wherever possible, choose texts that you know. Remember that the exams are not testing your ability to cram new material (although you should be at least somewhat familiar with new research being conducted in your field) but rather your ability to organize what you’ve learned at CGU into comprehensive frameworks. You’re being tested not simply on how much you can read and memorize but on how you conceptualize what you’ve learned.
Research before you read. You will undoubtedly be responsible for articles or texts with which you are unfamiliar; remember that one of the goals of the exams is to fill in the gaps in your knowledge. If you are creating your own lists, however, take the time to choose your texts wisely and well. I found that after I began reading, there were between five and ten full-length books that were not useful to me, were too outdated to be pertinent, or were simply poorly written and researched. Part of the reading process, of course, is to discover the weaknesses in the body of work you are researching, but try to streamline your reading load by choosing texts that are pertinent, useful, and important in your field. Before you put the book/article on your list, take the time to read the introduction, peruse the table of contents, and skim chapters. It is time well spent.
Take your time in preparing these lists. I rewrote one of my lists in particular several times before my advisor and I were satisfied with it. Don’t expect it to be perfect right away—ask your readers to look over it and make suggestions before you settle on the final version. Time spent preparing is time saved studying.
Remember that you are not expected to know everything, even though some faculty may seem to set it up that way. You are simply "integrating knowledge into coherent frameworks of thought." In other words, you are taking knowledge that you have already gained and some new knowledge that you plan to gain through your readings and organizing it into useful paradigms or frameworks. Think about the different ways to organize or thematize the readings: chronologically, thematically, by schools of thought, etc. This will help you to develop these frameworks and also will help prepare you for questions during the oral exam. You are being asked not to think in a box but to think about the different boxes, how they are constructed, and which ones are useful to you.
Even if lists are provided for you, take the time to organize them in different ways. If you are provided a list of major works in 20th century American literature, you know that these texts have been chosen by period. Try to imagine other ways they might be organized. Which are modern texts and which postmodern? Can we trace the development of multiculturalism throughout these many and varied texts? Is there a style of "women’s writing" (or of writing women) that has developed over the years? Is there an "American" style? You may not have much control over which texts you are responsible for, but you are responsible for those texts. Imagine how these texts might be organized "outside the box" which you are given.