The Fundamentals Examination: the Committee on Social Thought Qualifying Exam

The Fundamentals Examination is the defining experience for students in the Committee on Social Thought. Preparation for the examination is a kind of liberal education on the graduate level meant to help students relate their specific concerns to broader themes and diverse modes of addressing fundamental questions. In consultation with the faculty of the Committee, each student selects for in-depth study about twelve to fifteen seminal texts of the highest quality. Students' lists should include several works from each of the following broad areas: I. imaginative literature; II. philosophy, religion, and theology; III. history and social theory. At least one work is to be read in the original foreign language. Lists should include at least four pre-modern and at least four modern texts, taking 1500 as the rough division point between the two. Students are encouraged to include other than Western texts. They may include a film or group of related films as one text on their Fundamental lists along with the screenplay and a statement explaining its thematic coherence with other texts on their lists.

Students are expected to present their Fundamentals lists for discussion and approval to every active faculty member of the Committee. This process often takes some months and involves some negotiation; it should be begun at least six months before taking the Fundamentals Examination to allow faculty to suggest additional works, and it should ordinarily be concluded by the end of the spring quarter of the student's second year. The list should include a definitive edition or one or more translations for each work. Students are encouraged to attach to the list a brief statement highlighting common themes or explaining their reasons for selecting their texts.

Students entering in 2019 or later must pass the Fundamentals Exam prior to the third week of the Spring quarter of their third year of divisional funding in order to register and receive a stipend in their fourth year. Students who entered before 2019 are also expected to take the Fundamentals Examination during the third week of the fall, winter, or spring quarter of their third year. Students should announce their intentions by the seventh week of the preceding quarter (with the spring quarter counted as preceding the fall), presenting the copy of their Fundamentals list signed by every active faculty member of the Committee to the Coordinator for Student Affairs, who will schedule the Examination. Funded students should bear in mind that the earlier they take the Fundamentals Examination the more funded quarters they will have left to prepare the doctoral dissertation proposal, begin work on the dissertation, and obtain dissertation fellowship support.

In the Fundamentals Examination students answer one of two questions offered in each of the three broad areas listed above, making sure to select questions treating at least one pre-modern and one modern work. Examinations are set individually for students, with all the active faculty of the Committee asked to contribute questions. Questions may either ask about a single work or ask a student to relate two or more works from the list. Students are given a total of five days to write a substantial typed or word-processed essay in response to each of the three questions they select, demonstrating detailed mastery of the works, understanding of their intellectual contexts, and proficiency in writing. The goal of the essay is not the demonstration of disciplinary expertise, but rather the development of a thoughtful response of one’s own to the question posed. That response should evince serious intellectual engagement with the work or works under discussion. Students should respond to the questions asked and not submit previously prepared work. Students are free to consult notes. books and internet resources, but may not consult anyone else about the exam or particular answers during the exam period. The word limit for each answer is 5000 words. Anything more than 5000 words will not be reviewed by faculty.

The Committee faculty ordinarily meets to evaluate Fundamentals Examinations the eighth week of the fall, winter, and spring Quarters. Students may pass, pass with distinction, or fail with or without an option to retake part or all of the examination or a requirement to do some additional work. Students who do not have an M.A. from the University of Chicago may receive an M.A. after taking the Fundamentals Examination and meeting residency requirements.

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