Amherst Magazine

Choose Your Own Exam

By Emily Gold Boutilier

Since 2012, the English department has been crowdsourcing the required reading/viewing list associated with its senior comprehensive exam, inviting the department’s faculty, staff, current majors and recent alumni to nominate and vote for texts online.

Cover of "The Group," by Mary McCarthy

Ideal texts are those that “students should have had an opportunity to read during their four years here, but for some reason or another we haven’t had an opportunity to teach,” writes Associate Professor Marisa Parham on the nominations site. “Ten years from now, I could imagine Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go being on the list, but it would never be on the exam now because several courses are in love with it. But Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson could have made it last year because no one had taught it recently, even though 15 years ago all the cool kids were doing it.”

Last year’s winners were Adrienne Rich’s A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Toni Morrison’s Paradise, The Letters of John Keats and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

Cover of "Freedom," by Jonathan Franzen
This year’s nominations ranged from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, to Mary McCarthy’s The Group,  to  Collected Shorter Plays, by Eugene O’Neill. More than 60 people nominated between one and three texts each, and voting was under way at press time. The 2013 list will comprise the winners from each of five categories: poetry, drama, fiction, nonfiction and film.

UPDATE! The winning texts for 2013 have been announced. Here's the list.