Thursday, September 26, 2013

Some opinions on Comps...

I've been a really bad author and haven't updated this blog as much as I would have liked but I'm trying.  As much as I didn't want them to, comps kind of took over my life for about a month and a half.  Well, they took over my entire summer, but I mean, I couldn't really even THINK about anything else without feeling guilty about neglecting comps for the last 6 weeks.  People told me this but none of it really resonated THAT much until I actually buckled down and studied a lot.  I passed, though!  And now, I'm back with thoughts on the process.

I will be coming back with a helpful "tips for comps" post later on but I am hoping that this makes sense to those of you who have taken them or who will take them.  I feel like a lot of us lose out on the process after we do it.  It's so unholy, so vile, so stressful that we ignore the process and what it actually means to us, basically.  We may forget why we do it if we don't dialogue about it.

So, my questions are as follows (maybe we can have a dialogue?):
1. Why do we do comps?
2. Should we continue on with the process of comprehensive exams or are they obsolete?

So, to begin with, I will tell you about our process here.  Students typically take comps at the start of their 4th year of the PhD program.  That's late for the discipline but this program puts a high priority on both substantive courses AND methods training.  We get a lot of classroom time which has good and bad associated with it.  The exams are given in BOTH fields of study (mine were in public policy and comparative politics).  Your fields weight equally.  You have a written exam for each field.  Mine were each over an open-book period of 8 hours.  Then, a few weeks later, you defend your answers.  Some fields give you feedback and others don't.  You can't just pass on either stage alone - your orals and written both have to be "passes" and you have to pass both before you continue.  If you pass neither or only one, you have to retake the next semester.  If you fail that, you fail out, essentially.

In some departments, this is a foregone conclusion and simply a hazing exercise.  Everyone passes but they hurt you in the process.  In our department, few people actually fail but they have failed people and pushed them out of the program twice in the past year and a half.  It's not a foregone conclusion that you will pass and you do have to demonstrate pretty exceptional knowledge of a given subdiscipline in your written and oral exam to pass.  They don't do it to fail you but they don't make it easy, either.

So, with that said, why do we do comps?

Well, I asked this question at the beginning of my studying and then throughout the past 4 months of studying.  There is NO one answer but the answers I have collected seem to fit into three general camps.

Camp 1 (the cynic): Hazing
This is the camp that definitely hates comps the most.  A lot of grad students in-process and  post-process probably fit this mold as well as some faculty members that feel a publication is probably a better gauge of material.  These people see comps as an artificial ritual that just forces grad students to stress out for no reason.  A part of me DOES agree with them.  And while I do agree that much of the Ivory Tower is kind of obsessed with being an old boys club that would be totally okay with an arbitrary hazing process, I think this is a little too cynical to be reality.

Camp 2 (the scholar) : Breadth of Material
This camp thinks comps are fucking awesome.  Or, at least they seem to feel this way outwardly.  They believe that comps are a somewhat enriching process in which you learn what you need to be a scholar.  To some degree, I see their points.  I didn't agree with this idea prior to the process starting. I thought, "Why the hell do I need to know about Latin American party systems, anyway?  I will never use this teaching in policy school!"  Well, it is true that I probably won't but I will have to talk to people of differing backgrounds at conferences, in job talks, etc.  This view does have some merit.  However, I don't know if it alone merits such a horrendous process as comps.  Scholars are often quick to point out "I don't do that" when you ask them a question outside their bag of tricks.  However, I do think the process helped me get my head around how I would make a syllabus and the main arguments in each subfield.

Camp 3 (the pragmatist): Stress Management
My advisor is a cross between a scholar and a pragmatist but she errs heavily on the "pragmatist" side.  Academics are often seen by outsiders as pretty lucky.  We set our own schedules, we don't do manual labor, we get compensated fairly well, comparatively.  However, we also have really high stress jobs in a "publish or perish" environment.  Comps, in this view, prepare you for a life that is high-stress, critical, and demanding.  Your dissertation, publications, and tenure are stressful processes.  If you can't handle comps, according to my advisor, you will be up shit creek.  I believe there is probably more than a grain of wisdom with this view.  As someone who has a tendency to have panic attacks, has a mood disorder, and has always been wound up a bit tight when it comes to exams, this process was eye-opening.  It taught me I *could* handle the stress, over all.

I believe the BEST way to characterize why we do comps combines all of the above approaches.  Comps is a bit of a hazing ritual and a bit artificial in nature but it DOES teach you the main arguments in your subfield and, possibly even more importantly, prepares you for the reality of academic work.

Should we carry on with comps or are they obsolete?
I don't think they are.  Are they awful?  Yeah.  Is "well, I did them so you should to" a justification I think is appropriate for path dependence?


I do, however, for the reasons above, think they have merit.  Some have talked about changing the format of our comps here - making them closed-book.  I must say that I am not necessarily impressed by this idea.  My advisor is an advocate, saying it would help us not be held to an impossible standard of knowing EVERYTHING under the sun but I don't think the expectations among some of the faculty in every school and department to change over night. Some of us would be burned.  I'm not sure I feel this would be best.

I think comps suck.  They are miserable, awful, and stressful.  They suck.  But while they suck they also have merit if not just on the merit of those things listed above but also because knowing what would be expected for me in comps on DAY ONE of my program required me to take excellent notes, engage better with the material, and critique every piece I read.

For these reasons, studying was far more simple and relaxed (if it ever could be!) and I learned more during my courses.  So, there are merits to comps.  I just think we need to be careful how we look at them.  We also should reflect more on them as people who have survived our comps.  We need to help those suffering through them in subsequent years and stick to furthering the goals of scholarship and professionalization rather than using them as some sort of hazing ritual.

What say you?  Should we keep comps? Get rid of them?  Change them?  What were yours like?


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