Comprehensive Exams: Subject Mastery or a Kind of Academic Hazing

Football players take the field.

Football players take the field. Tim Mossholder via Unsplash.

By Christine O’Bonsawin

The report of the CHA Task Force on the Future of the History PhD in Canada is now available (in English and in French). This is the seventh in a series of posts by Task Force members, offering their perspectives on selected themes from the report. encourages readers to join in the conversation, either in the comments or on social media, or by submitting a response piece to be considered for publication upon the series’ completion.

What is the purpose of comprehensive exams? Subject mastery? Subject knowledge? Command of the field? Broad expertise? Situating the dissertation? Preparation to teach?

At the conclusion of the work of the Task Force on the Future of the History PhD, it was clear to members of the team that perceptions about the purpose of comprehensive exams vary between and within History departments across the country and that there are diverse opinions about the aims of such exam processes. In fact, there exists significant uncertainty around the comprehensive exam requirement in our departments, more so than other requisites of the History PhD, including coursework and the dissertation.

As detailed in the Task Force Report, faculty and graduate student respondents were divided on the question of comprehensive exams but also largely open to reform. A quantitative breakdown reveals that only 21% of respondents to our survey felt that no modifications to comprehensive exams were required. Further, 27% of English respondents and 28% of French respondents supported replacing one or more comprehensive examination fields with the opportunity to teach a course, and 28% of English respondents and 30% of French respondents supported replacing one or more of the comprehensive examination fields with a co-op internship.

A comparative analysis of comprehensive exams processes across the country further demonstrates uncertainty about qualifying exams. At the University of Toronto, students take four courses, then choose between two major fields (thematic and geographic) of 100 books each or one major and two minor fields with 40-60 books each. In the Tri-University Program (Guelph, Wilfrid Laurier, and Waterloo), major and minor fields are facilitated by seminar courses, and only the major field is examined. At Queen’s, there is one required course (theories and methods in history), with the two other courses feeding directly into the major and minor fields. Comprehensive exams consist of designing, presenting, and defending a syllabus for a full-year (24-week) course in the major field and a half-year (12-week) course in the minor field. McMaster has taken streamlining further and eliminated comprehensive examinations, and students’ major and minor fields are assessed within the reading courses. At UQAM, where there was no tradition of comprehensive exams, they have recently introduced a process consisting of two fields. The students draw up the lists, which consist of approximately 4500 pages of reading material for each field. The intention is not to be “comprehensive” but to allow students to do reading that will prepare them for their dissertation project. In the examples above, a broad range of comprehensive exam completion times exist, ranging from the end of Year 1 to the end of Year 2.

Survey respondents also had the opportunity to comment, thereby offering members of the task force with more nuanced information for understanding the division. Those supporting comprehensive exams remarked on their usefulness in ensuring that students read widely and gain a broad and deep knowledge of their fields. Phrases like “subject mastery,” “subject knowledge,” and “command of the field” showed up repeatedly in the comments. Conversely, those opposed to or critical of comprehensive exams questioned whether it remained possible to “comprehensively master a field.” One person labelled the process “brutal,” while another characterized it as a “kind of academic hazing.”

I have long held doubts about the usefulness of comprehensive exams. As such, the reference to academic hazing resonated with me. Over the past 15 years, I have supported several doctoral students, mostly Indigenous students, in formal and informal capacities, some of whom wrestled their way through the comprehensive exams process. Many of these students have come my way via other academic homes in search of an Indigenous scholar – sometimes regardless of discipline – to support and mentor them through these often isolating and hostile processes. And I am sure there are students in our History departments, particularly Indigenous, racialized, and marginalized students, who have sought refuge elsewhere due to intimidation and/or discrimination they have experienced in our programs, mainly through comprehensive exams. Considering the challenges many PhD History students experience in the comprehensive exams process, reference to academic hazing seemed, at least in my mind, to name something that is all-too-often avoided in our departments and across the discipline.

As a sport historian, I could not help but draw comparisons between the commonplace practice of hazing in sport and those forms of intimidation entrenched in academia. Sport psychologist Chris Stankovich explains:

Hazing in sports occurs when current team members require a new player to go through various physical and/or emotional tasks in order to be accepted by the team. In some instances the potential harm is easily visible, as in the case where athletes are punched, kicked, paddled, whipped or beat up. Less obvious emotional harm occurs when new players are forced into embarrassing and humiliating situations, like having to walk around school wearing a self-deprecating message.

This explanation provides a useful framework for understanding how hazing in academia potentially manifests. Comprehensive reading and exams can resemble hazing when established scholars require students to go through various intellectual tasks to be accepted in the discipline, demanding high and sustained workloads, compelling students to engage with scholarship that is not of their choosing, and ending the process with high-pressure testing. In some instances, the potential harm is easily visible, such as when students fail or drop out. Less obvious intellectual, emotional, and spiritual harm occurs when students are forced into painful and upsetting situations, like having to read literature saturated in colonial and racist thought.

As noted in our report, there are dangers when including certain types of scholarship on comprehensive exam lists, particularly those works imbued in colonial and racist thought. Also, we must reconsider the repercussions of prioritizing scholarship on qualifying lists that have stood the test of time. A consequence of this standard practice is that the voices, perspectives, and interests of those traditionally excluded from academia – specifically Indigenous, racialized, and marginalized peoples – remain absent, largely underrepresented, or perhaps worse, entirely misrepresented. Nonetheless, there are many other reasons to question the usefulness of comprehensive exams.

First, as noted above, there is no clear consensus across the disciple regarding the purpose of comprehensive exams. Whereas some departments prioritize the comprehensive exams as a critical preparatory tool for the dissertation, others view comprehensive exams as imperative to training good instructors. Moreover, some departments affirm both aims, while others mention neither. Second, given the changing academic landscape and the grim tenure-track job market, History PhD students are increasingly questioning the importance of comprehensive exams to their educational experiences. In an earlier Active History post on the structural challenges facing History PhD students, Sam Hossack explains that “Students are not naïve to the bleak tenure-track job market and therefore have strong concerns about the programs that continue to emphasize preparing students for an unattainable career path.” Finally, comprehensive exams are exasperating financial hardships, extending time-to-completion, causing further anxiety, stress, discrimination, and racism for many History PhD students.

History departments across the country are grappling with questions concerning the purpose and usefulness of comprehensive exams, so much so that they have become the most contentious component of PhD training nationwide. This fact alone requires our serious attention, broadly as a discipline and specifically within our doctoral programs. And while I cannot foreshadow the fate of the comprehensive exam moving forward, I may contribute to these ongoing deliberations and urge that in our collective efforts to prepare a diverse group of future historians, we move away from top-down approaches that all too often lend themselves to forms of academic hazing and intimidation. In this cursorily changing academic landscape, we must reconsider how our students may acquire a broad and/or deep knowledge of their field using approaches mindful of their mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, and financial well-being. Whether it is time to move away from comprehensive exams entirely is left for ongoing reflection throughout the discipline and within our departments.

Christine O’Bonsawin is an associate professor of History and Indigenous Studies at the University of Victoria.

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