by Andrew Keenan
The post-holiday return to Sewanee often brings a sense of excitement, the reunion of students back from abroad, and odd weather conditions consisting of a mix of various kinds of perspiration and a wide range of temperatures. For many Sewanee seniors, this return is also defined by the stress brought on by the rapidly approaching first term of comprehensive exams. For underclassmen, the aura surrounding comps is simply a sob story, grumbled by the senior class in an attempt to give the impression that they have been around the block a few times.
For currently comping seniors, it seems that the general consensus is that comps are unnecessary, old-fashioned, and fit into the category of Sewanee traditions that are kept intact simply for the sake of tradition. In nearly all small talk encounters about comps in the weeks leading up to them, there arises the not-quite-known statistic of how many schools in addition to Sewanee still uphold this practice. It is true that some majors at Sewanee have substituted final essays or presentations in place of comprehensive exams, but even if a student is a part of one of these majors there is no escaping the comp culture that extend to all parts of life in Sewanee. This is likely the focus of the most commonly made argument against comps. Also, many find it unreasonable to study such a large amount of material for a test that cannot possibly cover all of it.
Further, more many seniors believe that they have put the time and effort into succeeding in each of the individual classes that make up their major which should be sufficient to prove that they have learned enough to graduate. While these arguments are not completely unfounded, most Sewanee students are simply looking at comps in the wrong way. Seniors should not approach this time of year with the mindset that they must prove to their professors that they have retained as much knowledge as possible. Rather, they should see comps as an opportunity to bring together everything that they have learned within their major in one condensed period of time in order to really see the big picture. At a liberal arts school with such broad majors, I often find it overwhelming to think about all of the classes I have taken and how I could possibly apply something from each of them in real life. During comps, however, students are given the chance to look at everything they learned within their field of study and determine for themselves why it all really matters.
Comps are not for our professors—they are for us. They give us a sense of finality and closure that graduation does not necessarily achieve. Without comps many students would be left with a disjointed sense of accomplishment, knowing that they had completed their college experience successfully, yet not quite allowing themselves to fully grasp the importance of the past four years. So while it is inevitable that students will continue to act as if the abolition of comps would be a good thing, it seems that losing them would leave a giant hole in the unique experience that comes with the territory of a Sewanee student.