MA Exam Sample Questions


Sample Exam #1:   Assessing Written Texts

In English 596, Assessing Written Texts, we discussed various topics and issues that inform best practices for evaluating writing. Imagine that you are a newly hired consultant for StarCOM, a global technology firm. In addition to building customized software, StarCOM provides their clients with a full complement of marketing services including creating or enhancing their online presence via websites and social media; writing promotional/collateral material; technical documentation; and so on.

You are charged with developing a set of standards for evaluating the range of texts that StarCOM’s teams produce. StarCOM’s senior leadership has also asked your opinion regarding portfolios as a tool by which they can evaluate the effectiveness of their writers’ work.

In your essay for this exam, you should:

(a)  Discuss the benefits and drawbacks of portfolio evaluation for writers and evaluators (Callahan;Weiser); and then,

(b)  Propose a set of standards that StarCOM might use to evaluate their writers’ portfolios. In doing so, be sure to make connections to key themes in the research of workplace writing including but not limited to composing processes on the job; the significance of social context; and technology. For instance, much of our discussion in 596 focused on the relationship of social context and writing practice; specifically, the way in which texts function socially and culturally within organizations (Huot and Williamson; Blair and Takayoshi). What should creators and evaluators be aware of in terms of issues like power, for instance?


Sample Exam #2:   Literary Theory

Much of the early work in cognitive narrative theory was based on an interest in the representation of human consciousness in the novel, which was the focus of narratological concepts of free indirect discourse and stream of consciousness.  Alan Palmer’s Fictional Minds and Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction are clearly part of this strand of cognitive narratology.

David Herman’s Story Logic feels like a bit of an anomaly in this tradition, even though he is clearly working within a cognitive context.  How does Herman’s book shift the focus of cognitive narratology?  In comparison to Zunshine, what elements of narrative come to the forefront in Herman’s theory, and which elements fade into the background.  

Overall, do you feel that Herman’s methods are a more powerful basis for future cognitive work, or more limited than an approach like Zunshine’s? 


Sample Exam #3:  American Literature

DIRECTIONS:  Choose any one of the three questions below and write a fully-detailed essay.

1.  Hawthorne Question:

Hawthorne described the way in which his own imagination worked when he made one of his characters say, “Everything , you know, has its spiritual meaning, which to the literal meaning is what the soul is to the body” (Mathiessen 242).  Hawthorne’s technique of characterization seems to hinge on “ . . . noting an idea . . . and then work up an embodiment to fit it”  (Mathiessen 244).

Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Hawthorne’s technique of characterization as described above, using any one of the four major characters from The Blithedale Romance.  

2.  Melville Question:

“. . . his most recurrent type of evil character . . . is one whose malignity seems to be stirred most by the envious sight of virtue in others . . .”  (Mathiessen 434-435)

“. . . Melville’s vision tended always to be more complex than the posing of a white innocence against a very black evil”  (Mathiessen 507).

Using these assessments in a comparison/contrast essay,  focus on the villains Babo from Benito Cereno and Claggart from Billy Budd.

3.  Hawthorne/Melville Question:

 Hawthorne was never inclined to the metaphysical speculation that absorbed Melville in his efforts to express the human tragedy involved in the doctrine of “innate depravity” that he had inherited from his Presbyterian youth    (Mathiessen 243)  Moby-Dick in its main sweep [is] an example of the reconcilement of the general with the concrete, of the fusion of idea and image; whereas, even in The Scarlet Letter, the abstract, the idea, is often of greater interest than its concrete expression (Mathiessen 250).

Analyze the validity of this statement in connection with any one of Hawthorne’s classic short stories as compared to either Benito Cereno or Billy Budd.


Sample Exam #4:  British Theater

The “Faustian impulse” may be conceptualized as follows: It combines imperial arrogance, intellectual restlessness, and a supreme disregard for social norms and conventions. Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus is fascinating and seductive as a character precisely because he defies the normative boundaries established by his society. His transgressions are moral, intellectual and physical. With specific references to both Doctor Faustus and Othello, describe briefly how these two plays engage with the normative boundaries of the Renaissance. In other words, Shakespeare dares to dabble with the issue of race while Marlowe challenges variously the foundations of Judeo-Christian thought. How far can the protagonists go, what limitations stand in their way, and what regulative mechanisms (established by church and state) force them into compliance? [Recommended time frame: 25 minutes]

In Happy Days and The Caretaker, both Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter show their contempt for social norms and conventions through the oddest characters placed in unlikely and bizarre situations. Indeed the post modern critique of society in these two plays is packaged in the most delightful and disturbing absurdity. What kinds of social expectations do the characters in these two plays subvert? How do these characters frustrate our (conventional, scripted, banal, or programmed) aspirations and desires? What makes our experience in the Beckett or Pinter theatre so unsettling? [Recommended time frame: 20 minutes]

In conclusion, consider how the “order of things” is maintained and/ or reestablished by early modern tragedy. In post modern absurdist theatre, one might argue, there is no such assertion or imposition of order or authority. There is just the devastating sense of an inexplicable loss. Feel free to agree or disagree or modify or qualify or rephrase. [Recommended time frame: 10 minutes]