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The graduate program in Comparative Literature emphasizes flexibility and creativity. Our students tend to thrive under Cornell's graduate field system. As early as possible students choose a three-member special committee (whose membership can--and often does-- change as interests and approaches evolve). Only the committee chair must be a member of the Graduate Field in Comparative Literature. The other two members may be chosen from any other Fields at Cornell. Some students do end up with a committee of members from Comparative Literature, English or one of the national literature departments, but our students have ranged as far as Architecture and Experimental Biology in selecting mentors. The committee is endowed with significant autonomy in guiding the student through coursework, exams, teaching, dissertation and beyond. The program imposes no required courses, thus allowing the student maximal latitude in composing a program of study. We understand "comparison" in a very generous sense and we encourage work that is theoretical, anthropological, critical, or historical as well as grounded in the study of particular cultural or linguistic traditions and in different media. Normally students to have the ability to do advanced work in at least two languages as well as having reading knowledge of a third language. Recently, students and faculty have worked reading literature with trauma theory, cognitive science, environmental humanities, new media studies, and many more. We maintain close collaboration with other fields and programs at Cornell including Anthropology, Philosophy, Art History, Performing and Media Arts, Religious Studies, The Law School, Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Asian American Studies, Africana Studies.
Entering students are assigned to the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) until they identify a committee chair. By the end of the first year the student, again in consultation with the DGS, should compose her or his Special Committee.
From the third term onward the chief responsibility for the student rests with the Special Committee. Students are required to meet with the members of their committee for the Second-Year Review (see below) by the end of their third term, and they are encouraged to meet at least once a year thereafter to formulate topics and compose reading lists for their A-exams and to discuss their progress toward completing the dissertation. It is the student's responsibility to see that this continued contact is maintained.
The student should have a good reading knowledge of the languages of choice; this involves at least two foreign languages, since one may be English. It is strongly urged that she or he acquire fluency in speaking one of the foreign languages, especially if a concentration in a foreign language is chosen. Many of our students develop language skills on campus during the academic year (through upper-level seminars, foreign language reading courses, or more informal tutorials) or abroad, during the summer. There are a number of funding opportunities at Cornell to partially offset summer classes.
The student normally takes a minimum of 12 courses during her or his doctoral study . The student selects the courses in consultation with the Special Committee. Of the total number of courses, 10 must be taken for a grade. Many of our students continue to audit courses beyond the required minimum.
Most of our students teach during the second, third and fourth year, either as instructors of writing seminars (in English), or as instructors of a foreign language or as teaching assistants for a lecture class. All students receive substantive training and have access to resources on campus to help them develop their pedagogical skills as well as teaching portfolios for the academic job market.
The Second-Year Review The Second-Year Review is intended to enable students to begin focusing on the topics, approaches and areas of research that will form the basis of their A-exams. The Review takes place in a meeting with the student and committee members. The primary focus on the meeting is a discussion of a piece of writing, submitted at least two weeks prior to the scheduled Review. Our students generally submit a revised seminar paper; they are not necessarily expected to write something new for the Review. To help ensure a substantive and constructive meeting with their special committees, students also prepare a relatively brief statement of research interests and proposed areas of course work up to the A-exam. One purpose of the statement would be to reflect on the place of this writing sample in the constellation of a student's interests: to address its relation to future work, to frame it as part of a coherent project, or to use it as a springboard to discuss the comparatist parameters of the anticipated research. The review takes place in the third term as a precondition of registering for the fourth term of courses.
The purpose of the A (or qualifying)-exam is twofold: first, to certify the student’s competence in his or her fields of specialization, particularly with a view to preparing the student to seek employment in a single-language department, and second, to lay the foundations for the dissertation. Scholarship in Comparative Literature is increasingly interdisciplinary and includes a variety of language areas, each with its own disciplinary protocols. The fields of specialization are thus determined by each student in consultation with the Special Committee, which is also the ultimate arbiter of the nature and content of the A-exam questions. The fields often entail concentration in a particular period of the major literature, emphasis on a particular genre and on theoretical or methodological approaches.
The following examples from recently completed A-exams roughly follow this pattern:
- first field: English modernist novel
- second field: German modernist novel
- third field: Psychoanalysis and deconstruction
- first field: Anglophone and Francophone Caribbean Modernism
- second field: Harlem renaissance
- third field: Postcolonial theory and theories of modernity
Student programs with a more prominently interdisciplinary focus might configure the fields somewhat differently, as in the following examples:
- first field: Melodrama in Hindi film and television
- second field: Salman Rushdie and postcolonial theory
- third field: Theories of global modernity
- first field: Modernism/Postmodernism
- second field: German and Spanish 20th century experimental novel
- third field: Literature, Painting and the Body
The fields, typically three in number, form the basis of three reading lists. For each list, the student drafts a question which is the starting point of an essay. The essays can range from a survey of a field to a focused analysis that functions as a dry run for a dissertation chapter. Once the essay portion of the exam is completed, an oral exam is scheduled. The A-exam must be taken before the student's seventh term of residence. This is a requirement of the Graduate School, not of the Department.
The student must complete an acceptable dissertation. The work is directed by the chair of his or her Special Committee and must be approved by all members of the Special Committee.
This oral examination is a defense of the dissertation. It is administered by the Special Committee.
Students in our program take advantage of many activities during their residency on campus, from established reading and writing groups on theory and psychoanalysis to regular attendance at Cornell cinema; from tutoring writing to arts programming through small grants. Frequent lectures allow opportunities for graduate students to engage with visiting scholars. The Society for the Humanities at Cornell, with strong ties to our department, makes an abundance of resources available, including fellowships for students finishing their dissertations. Recent year-long themes have included Skin, Corruption and Authority. Our students also organize and speak at colloquia in Comparative Literature. Students who have completed their A-exams are invited to apply to serve on the editorial board of the renowned journal, Diacritics.
After the Ph.D. Our faculty, together with the Graduate School and with advanced students, offer a variety of workshops to help prepare students for the academic job market as well as for "alternative" academic careers. . Graduates of our program have secured academic positions in fields such as Comparative Literature, national languages/literatures, Area Studies, visual studies, film, and so on. Recent graduates are at Bristol (UK), U. of Toronto, Yale, St. Andrews (Scotland), Franklin and Marshall, University of Iowa, and more. A number of our students have gone on to work at research institutes, NGOs, or creative enterprises in the private sector.
The Field of Comparative Literature at Cornell University offers a Ph.D. in major areas of literary and cultural study. The application and additional information about graduate study at Cornell is available through the University Graduate School's Website. The Field of Comparative Literature admits only students intending to take the Ph.D.
Cornell University expects all applicants to complete their application materials without the use of paid agents, credentials services, or other paid professional assistance. The use of such services violates University policy, and may lead to the rejection of application materials, the revocation of an admissions offer, cancellation of admission, or involuntary withdrawal from the University.
The application must be submitted online. All supporting materials (including the writing sample of 15-20 pages) must be uploaded to your application. Recommendation letters should be uploaded by the recommenders. If your letters are stored with a credential service such as Interfolio, please use their Online Application Delivery feature and input the email address assigned to your stored document, rather than that of your recommender’s. The electronic files will be attached to your application when they are received and will not require the letter of recommendation cover page. If circumstances prevent your recommender from submitting a letter electronically, we will accept the letter in paper form mailed to:
The Department of Comparative Literature
240 Goldwin Smith Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853-3201
Scan transcripts from each institution you have attended, or are currently attending, and upload into the academic information section of the application. Be sure to remove your social security number from all documents prior to scanning. Please do not send paper copies of your transcripts. If you are subsequently admitted and accept, the Graduate School will require an official paper transcript from your degree-awarding institution prior to matriculation.
The Graduate School at Cornell requires the GRE but not a Subject Test. Cornell University's code is: 2098. Please plan ahead when scheduling your test date. You are required to self-report your test scores on the application AND instruct IELTS to send your official scores to us.
International applicants must demonstrate proficiency in the English language by submitting offical test scores from TOEFL or IELTS. Graduate School minimum scores are required. For more information, please view the Graduate School's English Language Requirement.
Scores over five years old are no longer valid.
Data may be saved and edited until the application is submitted, at which time no changes may be made.
Applications must be submitted by January 10. Offers of admission and financial aid are made by April 1, but usually much earlier.
For a list of frequently asked questions about graduate admissions, click here (PDF).
Graduate Student Awards
We are happy to award Elizabeth Wijaya the first Comparative Literature Essay Prize for her brilliant essay "To See Die, Again: The Act of Filming and The Act of Killing." This essay analyses the film "The Act of Killing" in the framework of state-legitimized mass killing. She looks at what she calls "the intertwining of performativity, re-performance and action in political and cinematic events" in the reenactment of murders by perpetrators in Indonesia. The essay subtely explores the complex problem of testimony and witnessing in the film and brings to bear theoretical concepts with a careful literary sense and political awareness. This is an important essay in the field and an outstanding example of the best writing in Comparative Literature.