As a grad student at a big public, I was entitled to see past qualifying exams questions, which gave me a sense of the sorts of things that might be asked.  Since we now press students to finish in five or six years, almost without exception, I thought it would be a good idea to list some of my own here.  Some of these are sample questions – questions I give to students in the weeks before the actual exam, so that they can take a day and do a dry-run for their quals.

In sharing these, my idea isn’t to make the exam easy, but to ensure that students who are preparing for exams get the same view of the landscape that I once enjoyed, and that they start to think about answers instead of questions.

I sit on exam committees in two different departments right now, and the practice in each is quite different. In Africana Studies, there is a substantial written component over several days, followed, some time later, by an oral defense. In American Studies, there is simply a long oral qualifying exam. These differences are reflected in the questions I ask in each context.

Africana, Fall 2014

“Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing in The Atlantic, has encouraged his readers to think about a longer term case for reparations, one not simply rooted in the failed promise of emancipation and the institution of slavery. To do this, Coates builds his case around a more modern history of racism, where the practices range from red-lining, to Jim Crow, to insurance scams and housing discrimination. The end result is a portrait of multi-generational capital theft, hidden by a dominant worldview that sees the dividends of racial privilege as merely the consequence of race-blind luck and hard work. (Read this and this, to start). I want you to do similar work here on a smaller scale. Surveying contemporary American life, and thinking about Coates’s telescopic essays on reparations, choose an incident from present-day popular culture that you feel deserves more attention – anything from the worries in 2008 that Barack Obama wasn’t truly “black,” to Kara’s Walker’s exhibit at the Domino sugar factory, to Iggy Azalea’s recent use of “blaccent” – and provide a history that explains it (emphasis is on explanation) and that makes a case for its significance.  [A question asked of a doctoral student in Africana Studies, 2014].

Africana, Fall 2014

For generations, sociologists have defined “gentrification” as a process, repeated in multiple cityscapes. As a process, gentrification has certain recognizable signs, ranging from the arrival of corporate food options to racial integration and class stratification.

Let’s assume that this focus on Whole Foods and queer urban pioneers relocated in “traditionally black neighborhoods” flattens out local histories. It establishes gentrification as something that repeats, in ritualistic fashion, wherever and whenever a booming economy meets up with the intrinsic value of property and land owned by poor people of color. And it makes gentrification an object of study. But it also obscures and distracts.

In your essay, forget the ritual and tell me a local story. Tell me how you would frame a racial and class-bound history of gentrification in Brooklyn. Define your object, and then tell me how the story of Brooklyn is different than the story of Harlem, how the Nets arena is not the same thing as Pathmark, how the 2010s are not the 1990s.

In short, tell me what matters in the story of Brooklyn. And tell me how, for residents of color and poor and working people generally, the story of Brooklyn is not just a process, repeating once again, but a contingent, historically specific, local narrative, with heroes and villains and folks who are just living. With big decisions made by developers and also things that happen by accident, or without planning, and with huge consequences.

In short, how would you tell me the story of race in contemporary Brooklyn and keep the people – and the question of contingency – in it?

Your answer should be rooted in the literature – but it should also pick fights, if necessary, and push back against convention.

American Studies, Fall 2015

Here are three sample questions for the oral qualifying exam in American Studies.  Again, my usual plan is to work through three questions, offered in sequence, with follow-up questions offered throughout and wherever appropriate. These are prompts, in other words, for a larger discussion.

If you had to highlight three social or historical factors in the history of race and race-making, what would those be? And can you identify a specific event that dramatizes the importance of each of those factors? So, for instance, if you wanted to highlight demographic movement as one factor, could you talk us through the Great Migration, and tell us how that shaped the history of race?

What is the best book you read during your lead up to this exam? How do you define “best”? What kind of analytic are you drawn towards? What kind of evidence sways you the most? Conversely, what was the worst? And, again, why?

In our composition of your field list, you singled out a specific subfield as one you were especially interested in. Why that one? What is it about that subfield that draws your attention? What other disciplines and interdisciplines intersect in that subfield? We started these readings with a “default” list on race and race-making. You edited that list in a particular way. Why? And how did your edition help you to think about the task of the next several years: your dissertation.

When you answer these, you’ll want to be very specific about history and historiography.

Last updated: September, 2015

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