English @ OU

Rhetoric and Composition PhD Exam Sequence

Our PhD process takes you through a structured program to insure that we prepare you for participation in the broader community of rhetoric and composition on a national and, increasingly, international scale. For this reason we have three examinations: first, a written, comprehensive exam that you will work on over the duration of your third year and that will be completed by the beginning of your fourth year; second, an oral exam on your dissertation prospectus that must be taken within six months of the written exam (if you fail the prospectus defense, you have an extra quarter term to revise the prospectus and pass the defense); and third, an oral exam ("defense") of your dissertation.

Comprehensive Exam

For Ph.D. candidates enrolled after Fall 2009 the comprehensive exam assigns students a decade of a journal from the field and asks them to examine all of the volumes of this particular journal published during that decade.

Time Frame: First day of class by 5 PM, fall of the 3rd year, through the first day of class, by 5 PM, fall of the 4th year. There are three distinct writing projects or essays as part of this examination. Each essay must include a Works Cited in MLA style. Each is to range between 20-25 double-spaced pages (approximately 5000-6500 words) excluding the Works Cited. These do not have to be done in any particular order, but they must turned in together, as a package, on the first day of class, fall semester of the 4th year. Exam results will be provided in one month.

In the case of failure: If students fail any of the essays, they have one opportunity to revise and resubmit four weeks after receiving notice of failure. Results of the revision will be provided two weeks after the resubmission. All essays must pass for the student to remain in the program.

  1. Students will be assigned a specific decade of a journal from the field and must carefully examine all of the volumes of this particular journal published during that decade. Starting with the earliest volumes of the decade assigned, the essay produced for this section of the exam traces a conversation, thread, or issue forward. A writer might examine changes in the conversation over time, influences on the conversation, and its current status, among others.
  2. Students are assigned a journal from the field and must carefully examine all of the volumes of this particular journal published during the last ten years. Then students will identify and trace a conversation or thread, from its most recent presence in the journal’s volumes back through the ten years of the journal. Also, students should include important texts and events outside of the journals discussed in the thread. The essay produced for this section of the exam will explain and analyze this conversation or thread. The essay needs to take note of what exigencies (textual, pedagogical, societal, etc.) for this topic were present during the earlier part of the ten-year span.
  3. Students choose a journal from a provided list and carefully examine all of the volumes of this particular journal that have been published during the last ten years. The journal chosen must be a different journal from those assigned in the other essays above. The essay produced will be an analysis of the journal over time. A writer might note trends, changes, or genres. A writer might wish to examine who seems to get published in the journal, who the audience is for the journal, whether the journal has had an editorial change, and if so, what that indicates. A writer could also consider issues, debates, emerging issues, what leads to responses, terms of debate, common ground, crash points, and historical references. This list is not meant to be prescriptive or limiting, but rather suggestive and generative. As is the case with any analysis, exam writers need to explain what is important about what they notice and to provide evidence to support their points.

For Ph.D. candidates enrolled before Fall 2009 the comprehensive exam offers a list of readings that forms a provisional canon for the purposes of our work with you. As academic expertise becomes increasingly specialized, the interdisciplinary discipline of rhetoric and composition is committed to maintaining a working knowledge of a few texts that form a basis for common ground in both spoken and written conversation; the academic discourse of the field. Passing the exam means that you have persuaded us that you understand what you’ve read, that you know how to summarize and synthesize in such a way that your work will be recognized as professional in the field; that you can form an argument that directs your thinking in a debate, and that you can support it in a persuasive, thesis-driven academic form that demonstrates how the ideas are currently discussed within the field of rhetoric and composition as well as any insight you may bring to bear on the subject. The comprehensive exam is graded by the rhetoric faculty.


The prospectus is your working plan for your dissertation project, a brief rehearsal of a conversation you plan to enter and contribute to. The literature review represents the conversation. The introduction is your contribution to the conversation. The methodology is your plan of action. The working bibliography represents scholarly conversations related to the discussion you are joining. When your director agrees that you have a reasonable draft of the prospectus, it is time to formalize your choice of a committee. You must choose at least two, preferably three, rhetoric/composition professors from the department and one professor from another academic department. A fifth member is optional.


The purpose of a dissertation committee is to help prepare you to enter the conversation you have chosen. Committee members help you rehearse the kinds of response your work may get when you have your degree and begin to publish from your dissertation in preparation for tenure. The dissertation committee, in this sense, is a safe audience that can help you solve problems in your thinking and research before you present your work to the national and/or international community of scholars in rhetoric and composition. Furthermore, in choosing to work with you, committee members have made a commitment to you and your work. They may be valuable advocates and resources after the dissertation project is successful, when you are attempting to publish your work. In choosing a dissertation committee in consultation with your director, you might consider the following questions:

  • How might this professor contribute to my project?
  • How might this professor be a future resource in the field?

Once you have a list of possible committee members, visit each one, prospectus in hand, and ask them if they’d be interested in working with you on your project, as described in your prospectus. When you have a dissertation committee, you are ready to proceed to the prospectus defense. The oral prospectus exam, or defense, takes place when your director lets you know that your prospectus is ready. The director will schedule a room and a time for your dissertation committee to meet with you. Give your committee copies of your prospectus two weeks before the meeting. At the beginning of the meeting, make a five-minute statement to the committee. This may include:

a brief oral summary of your proposed argument and/or research question, the context of your interest in the topic, and what you’ve learned from the process of writing a prospectus.

This meeting is a productive opportunity for you and your committee to discuss your dissertation plan together. The goal is for you to leave the room with an understanding of what strategies are most likely to bring you success in the completion of the project. Working together, the committee can offer feedback about what in your plan is intellectually viable, efficacious, and appropriate to the discipline and what may work against your success. At the end of a successful exam, your committee is committed to the viability of your project, usually with revisions. If your plan changes dramatically during the course of the conversation, the committee may ask to meet with you again to discuss a revised prospectus.

The oral dissertation exam, or defense, takes place when your director lets you know that your dissertation is ready. The dissertation defense is open to the public. The director will schedule a room and a time. Although you have given your committee members copies of chapters as you finish them, you must give each member a bound copy of your completed dissertation two weeks before the defense. This copy will be the subject of discussion at the defense. At the beginning of the meeting, you will present a ten-minute statement. This must include:

  1. A brief oral summary of the argument your dissertation has made and how you supported the argument.
  2. A one-page single-spaced chapter-by-chapter outline would be useful as a handout.
  3. The context of your interest in the topic and the contribution your work can make to the field.

At this point in your project, you know much more about your topic than does your dissertation committee. You will demonstrate that knowledge in answer to questions posed by the committee. This is a conversation that you control, disagreeing with your committee when appropriate and thanking them for constructive criticism. Before the end of the defense, be sure to ask your committee what suggestions they want you to implement before completing your dissertation and what revisions they are suggesting before sending the material out for publication in article or book form. At the end of a successful dissertation defense, you are no longer a student. You are a colleague.

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