What are comps for?

Every major at Sewanee has them, but what exactly are comps for? Last week faculty from a wide range of different departments—including history, economics, math, theater, religion, Spanish, and philosophy—came together to discuss what comps look like in different disciplines, what has changed in recent years, and what changes we might like to see in the future. It was a rich and thought-provoking conversation that brought out a range of different answers to the question of why we make our students take comprehensive exams and what we hope they will gain from the process. Four general themes emerged from the discussion: 

  1. Gatekeeping (making sure that students have a mastery of the skills and knowledge that ought to come with a degree in their field)
  2. Shared experience (having a process that all majors go through together, in some cases helping with and offering criticisms of each other’s work)
  3. Independent work (using skills and knowledge gained in the major to produce a significant piece of work that reflects individual creativity and/or interests)
  4. Looking forward (applying what has been learned in the major to life after college)

Not all departments gave equal emphasis to all of these themes, and particular themes were much more prominent in some comp processes. In recent years, a number of departments have changed their comp processes by making use of oral exams, spreading out comps over a longer period of time, or de-emphasizing certain elements (for example mastery of a “canon” of great works).

Missed the discussion but want to catch up on what was said? You can watch the recording here on the CfT website.    

-Mark Hopwood, Philosophy

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