M.A. Exam - Literature Track

In traditional master’s programs, graduate students are handed several lists of literary fields that they are supposed to “master.” At Northeastern Illinois University, we are committed to a more progressive, active, student-oriented approach to graduate school. Rather than viewing literary fields as fixed and frozen, we believe that they are dynamic, open, critical and creative processes that graduate students should help produce.

The English Department at Northeastern encourages and contributes to the growth of each graduate student. Therefore, in conjunction with completing 33 credit hours, graduate students will be at the helm of creating their own literary fields. At first, this may seem like a daunting task. However, this process is an excellent opportunity for students to explore their own scholarly and intellectual interests, establish their own specializations and contribute to the ever-changing disciplines of literature, culture and composition studies. The exam format now requires students to develop two M.A. fields with the assistance of at least two faculty members.

There will be one take-home exam per literary field, scheduled by the student when ready. For each exam there will be a seven day time period to complete the exam, during which the student will be expected to write an 12-to-20-page essay (double-spaced) on one question emailed to the student on the exam date. Given the generous time limit, students will be able to carefully plan their essay, recheck sources and make specific references to the texts on their reading list; a high level of analysis and argument will be expected.

Each literary field will consist of a rationale that contextualizes the issue within literary/cultural studies and a reading list with full bibliographic references.

In addition, it is required that students pass their first exam by the time they have completed 18 credit hours. This way, they will know if they are on the right track, and it will allow enough time to develop the second literary field within the six-year time span allowed for completing the M.A. degree at Northeastern.


1.       Students will write a one-page rationale (single-spaced) that positions their research topic historically and theoretically. This rationale should conclude with a series of questions. In addition, the rationale should be followed by a reading list that includes full bibliographic references.

2.       Each literary field should contain 15–20 sources, including primary works, relevant secondary works (combination of articles, chapters and/or books) and theoretical works (combination of articles, chapters and/or books). Each list should include a unique set of theoretical works.

3.       Each field should be compiled around a different, specific theme, genre or problem related to literary studies, cultural studies and/or critical theory.

4.       The reading lists may use graduate courses as a starting point, but it is not required to do so.

5.       Taken as a whole, the two fields should demonstrate the student’s knowledge of literary history and theory.

Tips for M.A. Fields Success

  1. Head your rationale with a descriptive title (and continually revise this).
  2. Anchor your M.A. field with three critical terms (these terms will change as your project develops). For example: “Race, Gender, and Religion in Victorian Literature” or “Class and Geography in Science Fiction.”
  3. Begin research by reading the secondary sources within your establish field. For example, if you are interested in race and Victorian literature, begin by finding the discussions and debates around these central terms. Type the keywords “Victorian literature” and “race” into databases such as MLA, Project Muse, Google Scholar, etc.
  4. As a general guideline, the more recent the article/book, the more current and useful it will be. Recent works of scholarship typically assess and position themselves within the field, which can help you determine the value of earlier scholarly texts and help you understand how the scholarly field has changed over time.
  5. In articles/books you deem valuable, the works-cited pages are gold mines.
  6. Enter a scholarly conversation; don’t reinvent the wheel.
  7. Think historically. What are the historical parameters of your project? Why? How do ideas, themes, etc. change over time? Every time you mention a text, place the date of publication in parentheses. For example: “Science fiction is a genre that imagines the future. This does not mean, however, that science fiction is a fantasy divorced from the present. Rather, as Frederic Jameson (2005) argues, science fiction is a history of the present.”
  8. Remember that for secondary and theoretical texts, you need not include entire books. You may include a chapter or a range of chapters.
  9. Be creative in selecting texts for your list: You may include cartoons, films, television shows, art, gossip magazines, etc.
  10. Establish your authority in your rationale by referring to at least two to three scholars/sources in your first few sentences (this can be done in parentheses). For example: “In recent decades, literary scholars have begun to recognize the theoretical richness and importance of African American gothic writing (Wright, Locke, & Charon).”
  11. Keep in touch with faculty for text recommendations, ideas, feedback, possible directions, etc.
  12. Get to know Northeastern’s English librarian, Mary Thill (m-thill@neiu.edu).
  13. Your  M.A. exam will be based on your rationale. Therefore, you want to be highly conscious and critical of every sentence you include.
  14. Think of the benefits of this exam beyond the test: This can be a future course; a potential dissertation; the foundation for a publishable article; the beginning of a creative project.
  15. Remember, your M.A. work is a branding opportunity. At the beginning of your cover letter to a university or potential employer, in conjunction with mentioning that you earned your M.A. in English from Northeastern Illinois University, also emphasize how you worked on two fresh literary/cultural/compositional fields.