Sunday, November 07, 2004

Comprehensive Exams

Make no mistake: comps are miserable. They're never satisfying. You will feel dissapointed and stupid; that's the whole point of comps. The best comprehensive exam is the successfully completed exam.

I've thought of a number of different ways to describe my comp experience and I've used a few different analogies. One involves the story of the man who catches his nine-year-old son smoking behind the garage and then locks him in the pantry with an entire box of cigars. The boy isn't allowed out until he finishes all of the cigars; he never smokes again. With comps, you read and write and read and write and read and write until you never want to read or write again. Or at least read and write about material that has already been written about! Perhaps that's one of the benefits of comprehensive exams: innoculation against committing plagiarism.

The second analogy is of an apendectomy: acute pain has been replaced by a dull ache and the knowledge that you can never suffer from another apendicitis attack. All you have to show for the ordeal, however, is a block of missing time and some bills. But at least the ordeal is over.

Perhaps these analogies are unfair to the hallowed--medieval really--traditions of academia. We may think that modern academia is an enlightened caring environment but, for me, the entire comps process really demonstrated the full majestic power of academia and gave me a glimpse of how secret societies must operate. After months of preparation and angst, the "trial" took a week to complete, and the assessment required another several days during which my status as a successful curate was cast into doubt any number of times. During my oral defence, I was asked a number of esoteric questions about which I "should" have some knowledge-despite assigned curricula--and towards which I "should" express some concern. Given that the inquisitors were fully recognized within the apostolic succession, I was not necessarily in a position to express my true concerns, thoughts, and beliefs. Instead, obeyance and humility were in order.

There it is, my thoughts on comps. I'm still processing. It's out of my system and I can move on to something else (like preparing for my own final calling to the order. Perhaps thumbscrews will be my own contribution to comps).

PS. Just so I don't forget: "cognitive"--it's just an adjective! Who cares how psychologists use it? Significance and meaning is determined by context and usage. And "re-construction" may not be appropriate for a critical pedagodgy. From a Prochaskan perspective, moving to actualization before moving beyond precontemplative is a sure route to failure. Yeah. That's what I should have said... next time.