The Joy of Comps

Earlier this week, D.A. students received an email from Dr. Lowney announcing an upcoming change to the comprehensive exam all D.A. students are required to take after course work has been completed. The comprehensive exam format is switching from written to oral beginning with the D.A. students who enter the program next fall. Luckily, all current D.A. students have the opportunity to choose the format in which they would like to receive their examination. There are pros and cons related to both formats, but thankfully in Chapter 7 of Gregory Colon Semenza’s Graduate Study for the 21st Century entitled “Exams,” Semenza reassures us that no matter the format, we will all survive comps.

Honestly, I’ve been looking forward to comps. Six months to a year to read a ton of books (75?) about topics that not only interest me but that will also help me write my dissertation and help me become a better composition instructor? And I can do it all from my home while wearing pajamas? What’s not to love?? Semenza says, “What most Ph.D.’s realize long after comps have ended is how badly they long for the freedom to read and learn that they were granted back then” (154). I crave the freedom to learn at my own pace, topics of my choice.
So, what are the pros and cons of the oral and written formats? From my understanding of the exam and Semenza’s explanation, here’s what I’ve come up with.
Written Format
Pros – You have three hours to write everything you know about the topic in question. You don’t have multiple sets of eyes looking at you, judging your ideas as you come up with them.
Cons – Three hours may not be enough time to answer the question. If at the end of your paper you realize that you’re off topic, you may not have time to scratch everything and start all over.
Oral Format
Pros – This exam is two hours long. You can clarify any confusing statements and receive clarification when the questions are confusing. You don’t have to worry about grammar/mechanics in your writing. You’re able to add a bit of your personality to your answers (positive traits only). This format serves as interview practice for the future. If you love attention, then you’ll enjoy the opportunity to do a bit of showing off.
Cons – This exam is two hours long. If you’re shy, having multiple sets of eyes looking at you may be unnerving. Negative aspects of your personality may show up if you become nervous, frustrated, or angry. Crying may occur (that would be me).
Have you decided which format you will choose? Can you think of any other pros and cons to add to my short list above?
Semenza is persuading me (tears and all) to think about the oral format. I think that it might be easier for me than the writing format. I like the idea of it being a bit more conversational, rather than just me writing for 3 hours, wondering if I’m even on topic or answering the question. I like the human interaction. It might even serve as practice for defending my dissertation.
About Steve Mentz 661 Articles
I teach Shakespeare and early modern literature at St. John's in New York City.

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