Hanover College Triangle on
Steve Richmond, "Comps: A Retrospective," Triangle, 23 March 1979, 5.
Being a senior at Hanover College means being and doing a lot of different things. It means being nervous but happy about that ever-looming-in-the-horizon date in May. It means writing that infamous independent study. And in March, it means “COMPS.”
To the uninformed, “COMPS” may sound like some sort of neurological disease or like an acronym for some government agency. Although the nervous system is somewhat directly involved and there is a degree of bureaucracy to “COMPS,” neither of those definitions are quite appropriate.
“COMPS” is a Hanoverism for senior comprehensive examinations. You take the first four letters of “comprehensive,” put the “s” from “examinations,” and you get “COMPS.” So much for etymology. Now to the good part, what are “COMPS” like?
I am an English major (sounds like one of those Alcoholics Anonymous therapy sessions where everyone starts by confessing, “I am an alcoholic.”) In the English department we have oral “comps” (I get tired of the caps every time!) So, more anxiety. We also have something called “dry run comps” which took place in late February. This amounted to spending fifteen minutes with two of the department professors talking about what they might ask you during “the real event.” The professors also gave some sample questions and they tried to allay some anxiety.
The “dry-runs” were fun as were the following two weeks (this is just after Long Weekend—a time many of us had planned to study and some of us did a little bit). During these weeks, some of us English majors got together and reviewed. Now, if you’ve ever known an English major, you know that when it comes to literature, we’ll talk your arm off. So you can imagine a group of English majors together. But I even enjoyed studying by myself. I found that a lot of things I’d “learned” (written down in notes, to be precise) as a freshman now made so much more sense and I could fit things into the total scheme of things in a more intelligent, generally better way.
Time has a nasty way of running away from you like a startled gazelle. Panic time. March 3, 1979. This is the day that most departments give their written comprehensive examinations and thus, marks the beginning of “COMPS” time. This period last until nearly the end of March because different departments do things differently. For example, English department oral comps are held the week after the Saturday written exams; the geology department has the Saturday written exams and then the following week or so has oral comps, and the theology department doesn’t do their exams until a couple of weeks after everybody else is finished.
Many of my fellow English majors were quite literally terrified of their “hour.” Personally, I wasn’t nervous at all, that is, until the morning of my exam. It was on Wednesday. I had planned to take the entire day to study. And study I did. I don’t think I’d studied that hard since the logic exam in philosophy my freshman year. Then the clock’s hands waved away the hours. At 3:30 I left the library to go to my “appointed place” in Classic Hall.
I was a few minutes early so I spent the time by pacing back and forth in an empty classroom. The atmosphere in Classic is at best oppressive. This day it seemed even heavier and gloomier than ever. Shortly, my examiners, Drs. Smith and Ferguson, arrived. They tried to make me relax by making small talk, offering me a cup of coffee, and telling me to relax. Their attempts were met with a degree of success, but my insides felt like they were going two different ways at the same time.
Finally, the exam began. The hour went fast. Once I got into the material I started really enjoying it. I found it was less like the Grand Inquisitor with the Spanish Inquisition scene I had devised in my anxious mind and more like a discussion of my favorite topics with two old and intimate friends. It was fun.
After the exam, I was asked to step outside and to close the door behind me. Although I was confident that I’d passed, the nagging anxiety swept back over me like a tidal wave. The two doctors seemed to deliberate forever. Finally, they came out.
I did indeed pass. They said I’d done quite well and that I was one step closer to that fateful day in May. I thanked them both (at least I hope I did) for their supportiveness and left. I was exhausted, exalted, and just a little jiddy.
Now, having gotten some distance and perspective on the whole comprehensive process. I highly endorse it. Certainly, the system has flaws but when considered on the whole, it works pretty well. Indubitably, the examinations themselves are not what is important. The true significance lies in the bringing together of information gleaned and absorbed during the four years. This is what liberal arts, and hopefully, Hanover College is essentially all about.
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