An Explanation of Comps

I’ve realized that I continually mention “comps” in my blog posts without giving any explanation! I attend Kenyon College and here all seniors are required to complete a senior comprehensive project in order to receive their degree. The project is different for each major, for example drama majors perform/direct a play and take an exam while biology majors write a research paper and take an exam. For English majors like me “comps” has two parts: the paper and the exam.

The paper is a project of our own devising. It can be on any area of literature that we have taken classes in and can use any novel, whether we’ve read it for a class or not. The idea is to show the English department that we’ve learned something during our four years here. Absurdly short at nine to twelve pages, the challenge of the paper is writing all of the pertinent information concisely! For most of us this is the shortest paper we’ve written for an English class since freshman year, so it’s definitely a struggle. This part of comps was due just after winter break, at the end of January.

The examination is far more structured. We are given a reading list of several novels, plays and poets and are expected to know the works thoroughly. The works come from the three divisions within the English department: pre-1700s, 1700-1900, post-1900. For my year we have to read the following:

  • Pre-1700: The Tempest (William Shakespeare), Doctor Faustus (Christopher Marlowe), All for Love (John Dryden), The Canterbury Tales: Middle English Version (Geoffrey Chaucer)
  • 1700-1900: Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte), The Playboy of the Western World (J.M. Synge), The Interesting Narrative Life of Olaudah Equiano
  • Post-1900: Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys), Absalom, Absalom! (William Faulkner)

The poets are also chosen to spread through the time periods, though thankfully there are fewer of them. We have to read: Eavan Boland (post-1900), Emily Dickenson (1700-1900), Michael Harper (post-1900) and George Herbert (pre-1700).

The list seems daunting at best. Finding time to read all of the works is enough trouble but to read them in the detail they deserve, and that is expected, is more than a little challenging. Anything about the plot or author can be asked on the exam. We have to identify passages from the books and know what scene it is taken from and who is speaking. We have to analyze a poem in detail, for three hours. Stress about the exam doesn’t even begin to cover it!

Luckily I have a wonderful study group that has been meeting since August to go over the books. We’ve accomplished a great deal more than other English majors in our situation have at this point in the game. I keep telling myself that there are those who read the whole list over spring break and come back to campus to pass the exam, surely that means I can do it too.

My flashcards are (mostly) made. I’ve read everything (except one) book. I have three weeks to study and then I will be done with my English major!

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