By Tess Steele
Sightings of silly string, glitter, and empty airplane bottles indicate that it is indeed that time of year again: Comping Season. Comprehensive Exams, referred to as comps, are part of Sewanee’s tradition that give seniors an opportunity to show a mastery of knowledge in their field of study through a written, oral, or performance based exam for their major.
While students undoubtedly feel the pressure of an exam that represents four years of dedication and intellectual growth, the previous comping tradition was far less forgiving of students double majoring. During Professor Gerald Smith’s forty-seven years working for the University of the South, there has been a shift in the time of comprehensive exams. At one point, all comprehensive exams were given during exam week in June, without exception. Now there are three comping periods each semester, for a total of six periods for students to take the appropriate exams, offering more opportunities for double majors to move any overlapping exams.
Comps can be a source of great anxiety for students, with many seniors studying for hours upon hours, reviewing years of material. Once students finish their comps, fellow students and friends look forward to celebrating the academic accomplishments of the recently “comped” senior with an array of signs, confetti, snacks, and, in Sewanee fashion, alcohol.
Smith has seen more comps than most anyone on the Domain. When asked about his view of the comping celebrations, Smith said “I think Sewanee should stop beating up on its students and let them be college students. We live in the most repressive, regulated, intimidating student environment I have seen in my forty-seven years here. Sure, there are excesses, but most of the drinking tragedies I have seen among Sewanee students did not occur as the result of comp celebrations. I think the administration should chill out about comps. We have much more important problems on campus with chronic alcohol consumption, DUI/DWIs, and inadequate counseling resources. Comp celebrations, per se, are not the problem. I think our excessive regulatory environment is a causal factor in excessive response by the students. Students need to mellow as well, but that becomes hard when it feels like you are under scrutiny 24/7 and every behavior carries a potential infraction.”
The celebrations typically last for an hour or so, taking place outside of academic buildings until students relocate the festivities to other parts of campus. Glass bottles and public alcohol consumption, while violating the university’s policies, have come to be expected during comps. In recent years, the Sewanee Police have been giving students citations for various alcohol violations, much to the students’ disappointment.
Maggie Bliss (C’16), an Ecology and Biodiversity major, was one of the unfortunate seniors to be given a citation for an open container and glass bottle just minutes after finishing her comp this January. “It killed my vibe. After taking nine hours of exams, nobody wants that. The whole thing really was humiliating. It attracted everyone’s attention and I lost a really good bottle of Prosecco. I found it condescending that the cop made me pour it out after having already given me a citation. He easily could have disposed of it himself, but rather he took up even more of my time making me pour out my celebratory alcohol.” While Maggie was aware that she was violating school policy, she thought that police would not be strict during the comping celebrations because of the event’s brevity and lighthearted nature. “I knew there was a possibility the police would be there, but when I was called out by a cop I was not drinking and I had the bottle down. The Sewanee Police are taking advantage of the fact that they can write students up with ease.”
Alex Bruce, Associate Dean of the College for Undergraduate Academic Affairs, spoke on the clashes between university policies and comping celebrations. Bruce confirmed an increase in police monitoring during comps over the last two or three years, resulting from multiple complaints of comp related noises and distractions. The administration has communicated with the police force to alert them of when students are comping. “I would not want to distract another person still testing, it is not healthy the way the noise can effect the last person finishing.” Being a Sewanee alum, Bruce (C’89) noted that there were no celebrations after his own comp, and presumably this excessive celebration is a recent development for the school.
Being here for just under a half a century, Smith has witnessed the comping festivities many a time and holds a different view than Bruce. “After comp celebrations have been around the whole time I have been here—but they have varied over the years. Early on, alcohol presented to the senior was less important because the drinking age was eighteen and there was a very powerful pub tradition.” While drinking has always been a part of the comp celebrations, it has not always been the focus. “The big deal as I remember it with early comping was not the booze part but the decoration part: cars, dorm doors, dorm rooms decorated with washable paint. Cars in particular were often elaborately—and sometimes very vulgarly-decorated. Of course, in any generation of students there are some who are more sober/somber in their patterns.”
To not completely discourage celebration, the administration has made sure the Tavern is open during comp seasons. Additionally, Bruce suggested relocating comp celebrations to other locations on campus, including Greek houses and themed houses. As acknowledged by Bruce, both Greek and themed houses can be exclusive. Although the administration may prefer celebratory locations off central campus, academic buildings are the most inclusive option.
A current Sewanee student who participated in the British Studies Program saw comping celebrations taking place at Oxford, where comping traditions have been part of the school’s history before Sewanee was even founded. “This tradition of celebrating academic success with champagne and confetti at one of the world’s best universities is the way college students celebrate intellectual growth. Why lose this tradition here at Sewanee over glass bottle policies? Who is being hurt by an hour of celebration?” voiced the former British Studies student.
While the students, faculty, and administration may all have different views of how students should properly celebrate academic success, the Sewanee traditions of comps and the occasional celebratory beverage will endure all the same.
Photo by Frances Marion Givhan