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For anyone who has been reading my blog for a while, you know that I post a new update every-other Friday. Coincidently enough, today ended up being the day chosen for my dissertation proposal defense. As the defense is scheduled for 11 a.m. CST, this post will go up a few hours later than usual. Still, I thought today would be the perfect day to describe Illinois State University’s PhD program requirements for English graduate students. The dissertation element itself won’t be discussed, but the five steps leading up to it can provide insight for anyone reading who’s interested in applying to ISU’s program or is looking for ideas for creating/revising PhD requirements at their own institutions. Now that I’m a PhD candidate (baring a bit of paperwork), I’m excited to share my thoughts on what I’ve experienced in the last (almost) four academic years.
I won’t get into too much detail here, as this element is very similar to any English department’s PhD requirements. Basically, two years of course work, with certain types of classes required in our specializations. One point of interest, we have an English Studies design and an emphasis on pedagogy, so PhD students are required to take four seminars, one in each of the following areas: literature and culture, linguistics, rhetoric, and pedagogy. There is also no second language requirement, which I know some programs do have.
Other than taking my linguistic seminar in the summer between year one and two (I had to take a prerequisite course during the regular spring semester slot as I hadn’t taken a linguistics course before ISU), this first portion of the degree process didn’t have any unexpected bumps. I was lucky in that all my courses and professors were fantastic. I learned so much during this time, and I was really able to grow my knowledge in areas outside of children’s and young adult literature. I’ve only audited one course since finishing my coursework, so I definitely miss the discussion element of attending classes (though not the writing assignments, considering I’m still doing plenty of that post-coursework).
We design an already offered undergraduate course (I chose ENG 125: Literary Narrative), inspired by the work we anticipate we’ll be doing in our dissertation. We choose between a course design focus or a research focus, and if we decide on the latter option, we complete an IRB with our advisor in order to ensure that we can use our data in our dissertations. Once we complete the course, we have six weeks to write a 20-page paper describing our experience, what we learned and what our students learned. This paper often becomes the pedagogical chapter of the PhD students’ dissertations, as our dissertations must have a pedagogical element to them. We submit our paper to our advisor, and basically receive a pass or fail.
I absolutely love the fact that an internship is a requirement for our degree. While graduate teaching assistants have a lot of design-power for all the courses we teach, the internship in particular gives us the chance to design a whole course around our dissertation idea. Yes, some of us will end up going in a completely different direction for our dissertations, but we still have the experience of designing and teaching a course that interested us. It is also an opportunity to go through the IRB process with an advisor. Considering my whole dissertation revolves around pedagogy, I anticipate using plenty of my “data” in my dissertation. This internship also inspired the project that my dissertation has now become, which changed in significant ways from when I first designed the course.
English Studies Exam
As we are an English Studies program, PhD students are required to take seminar classes focused on literature, rhetoric, linguistics, and pedagogy. For this exam, we must combine our area of specialization with another English Studies area. After choosing an advisor, we write a 5-10 page proposal (and bibliography) and get it approved by our advisor. We then create a 30 minute oral presentation. Once the proposal has been approved and submitted, we have a month to create our presentation and cannot speak to our advisor during this time period. During the exam, the presentation is assessed by our advisor and a second professor with knowledge on the topic at hand. We do not pick this second assessor, and the exam is also open to any faculty or graduate students interested in seeing the presentation. After we present, the graduate student viewers step outside and the exam-taker answers questions from their two assessors. They step outside while the assessors discuss their exam, and once that’s done, they find out immediately if they passed the exam. The exam is video recorded, in case a third assessor must break a pass/fail tie. In that case, of course, the student will not find out if they passed or failed until a third assessor is chosen and sees the footage.
Public speaking always makes me anxious, so I knew this exam would be harder on my nerves than the specialization. Still, it gave me the chance to delve deeper in visual rhetorics scholarship, which worked out well considering I’ll have a whole chapter in my dissertation with that exact focus. It also gave me the chance to work closely with one of my professors, and I knew by the end of the exam (though really, much earlier) that I wanted to ask her to be on my committee (spoilers, she said yes). Considering my dissertation argument centers on children’s and young adult literature being an integral piece of the English Studies whole, it’s hardly surprising that I am a big believer in this exam. The oral presentation nature of it is a good precursor to the dissertation proposal defense and dissertation defense, so even though I don’t enjoy the format on a personal level, I see it’s necessity as a student. I know some of my classmates might not appreciate this exam as much as I do because their dissertations have a more specialization-specific argument, but at the very least, it makes for the start to a stand-alone article.
Our dissertation chairs are likely our advisors for this exam, as it tends to be taken last, at which point we are pretty sure what our dissertations will be about and who we want to work with on that project. We write a 5-10 page exam proposal (and bibliography) and submit it to our advisor for approval. Once it’s been approved, we submit it to the department and have a month to write the 20-page exam. It’s submitted to our advisor and a second, anonymous, reader. We receive our result via mail (weird, right?) about two weeks after our submission. Each assessor’s feedback is included in the letter.
This exam can take on many forms, but for the most part, it’s either a first version of a dissertation introduction or the first draft of another chapter. In my case, it was the first draft of my introductory chapter, which worked out well as it forced me to articulate the “big picture” of my dissertation for the first time. I was able to really flesh out what I saw as the basic argument of my dissertation, and my advisor also had me use one of my primary texts in my exam so I could also begin demonstrating the analysis I’d be doing soon enough. Creating the bibliography for the proposal also helped me find additional pivotal resources that I hadn’t come across yet. The purpose of this exam can’t really be put into question, considering it provides a space for us to prove our knowledge of our field and how we want to add to it with our scholarship. I’m very glad it wasn’t a second oral presentation, but I think it’s unfortunate that we are not told who our second assessor is, as I would have been interested in discussing my ideas with someone who’s not as closely tied to my project (or perhaps even to me, considering I definitely haven’t worked with the majority of professors in my department). Overall, though, the steps and pacing of both exams worked really well for me.
Dissertation Proposal and Defense
First, we write a 20-page proposal for our committee. This proposal includes a statement of argument, literature review, methodology description, chapter descriptions, suggested timeline to completion, and our bibliography. This proposal is submitted to our chair, first, then to the other committee members once our chair has approved it. Most committees have three members, though that’s not mandatory. Once the proposal has been revised and approved by the whole committee, we set a time to orally defend our proposal. The committee and a Graduate Committee representative must be present at the defense, though it is open to other faculty and fellow graduate students. Once we pass the defense, we write up a memo noting down any new suggestions/revisions for the proposal, and submit it to be signed and filed with the department.
Again, public speaking isn’t really my favorite thing to do, but in this case, I’m well aware of the benefits of having to complete this last step before we become PhD candidates. Being able to explain and defend our dissertation is a must-have skill, considering how much we’ll be talking about our projects at conferences, on the job market, and beyond (for example, to family, friends, and anyone who asks what we do and stands still long enough to hear our answers). As for my defense in particular, I typed up notes for the questions I’d likely be asked, though I only really needed to refer to them when asked about specific critics I’m using in my work (as a rule, I like to be over-prepared). I asked a classmate to be my note-taker, which worked out really well. It was a really smooth defense and I received great new resources to check out along with some new ideas for how to present my overall argument. So, at this point, I’ll just write up my “memo of understanding” with the suggestions made by my committee, get it approved, and turn in my paperwork. And then, time to start writing chapter one (though technically, I’m starting with my second chapter). The last stage of my PhD program experience has officially begun.
Overall, I love the design of our PhD program and I’m so appreciative of all I’ve already learned by being part of this community. I’m excited to be ABD, but I know I still have plenty of work ahead of me. Still, for today, it’s time to celebrate with friends and family!
Are you a member of an English department with a PhD program? I’d love to hear about the design of your program. Feel free to share in the comments section below.