Making the List: Best Practices

Now that you’ve thought about what work your prelims reading list is doing for you it’s time to actually draft the list. Remember that the reading list is a collaborative work between you and your committee, the structure of which is dictated by your program requirements. Some programs archive the reading lists of past students. It is worth asking your departmental admin if this is a resource available to you as it will give you some concrete examples of the standards for a reading list in your program. As always, consulting with your program’s graduate student handbook and your committee is a great start to the process.

Above and beyond that, though, there are some best practices that should translate to almost everyone.

Course Work: Use as much of your course work as you can when preparing your prelim list. Most graduate students I’ve met, myself included, seem to want to make life harder for themselves for no damn reason. I believe this is why so many of us buy into the unfounded notion that our prelim list has to be made of completely new books (TM) that we’ve never read before!

This self-inflicted Sisyphean exercise makes no sense.

What does it mean when a book makes it onto a syllabus? It means that an academic expert looked at the field of books available in a given topic and chose to include that text in a limited 12 or 16 week course. It means it’s been weighed and measured and found essential. An expert has vouched for it.

I’m not saying you should include absolutely everything from your course work, but you should include all the things you think might make sense. For example, one of my fields was in Feminist Theory. By the time I was preparing for prelims I had taken three Feminist Theory courses: one as an undergraduate, one during my MA, and one during my PhD. I was able to dig out these syllabi and include texts from each of them on my list. I didn’t include absolutely every text but you can bet I included the texts that had made it to all three syllabi because they had been deemed essential by three faculty at three different universities. That might be a hint that they are texts I need to be able to discuss if I want to market myself as a scholar in that field. I also included the texts that had been particularly influential to my thinking because your prelim list is the first opportunity to literally list what texts are foundational to you as a scholar.

Will this practice make your life easier? Yes. Especially if you also happen to have notes and papers you wrote for these courses to remind you what you found important about these texts in the past.

Does that mean it mysteriously cheapens your list? No. Absolutely not.

Am I making an implicit argument about the value of the academic pack-rat? Yes. Save as much as you can from coursework: syllabi, papers, notes. I don’t care how you keep it–just keep it.

The Partial List: The absolute best piece of advice I got when preparing my prelim list was from the junior member on my committee. She told me to make 3/4 of a list rather than a full list because your committee will always, always add to your reading list. There will always be a few texts that your various committee members feel are *essential* and will want to add. After all, we have committees because they know things we don’t and that includes important texts we may never have heard of.

If it’s standard for your program to have a reading list of 100 texts then submit a list to your committee of about 75 books and articles. Your committee will add a few books per member and you will likely add some texts yourself throughout the process so aim for 3/4 of what is standard in your program and you should wind up just about right.

An Opportunity: Almost every humanities PhD student I’ve ever met became a PhD student because they love to read and learn. Prelims are, perhaps, the purest opportunity to read and learn according to your interests that you will have in your academic career. When making your list think of all things you *want* to read but haven’t had time to. Think of all things you’ve read but want to revisit. Include those things in your draft list even if they don’t seem to make sense on the surface. Trust your gut and trust the process.

Our next prelims post will be about how, and what, to read to prepare you for prelims.

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