The senior exercise: ever-looming and inescapable for Kenyon students. The fourth-year ordeal better known as comps is often misunderstood by friends and family beyond the Hill — but is perhaps just as often misunderstood by those on campus.
What is the purpose of a senior exercise? It’s difficult to know, since there does not appear to be a comprehensive definition of the concept on Kenyon’s website. A Google search reveals departmental definitions but no cohesive explanation.
Comps come at a critical time in a senior’s academic career. We are preparing to leave the space we’ve carved out for ourselves on campus and enter jobs or graduate programs. Comps preparation detracts from the time necessary to secure those jobs and programs. Not to mention the fact that regular course loads continue — and sometimes even amplify — during senior year. If a student’s comps come on either end of a school break, they’ll have more time to study, but will often spend the entirety of that break preparing for the exam, paper or presentation. Their other responsibilities will fall by the wayside.
It’s true that for some majors, comps can be productive and educational. Writing a thesis or completing some other project that explores a topic in depth can develop a student’s expertise in their area of study, and provide them with a springboard for their future academic pursuits.
But sometimes it is only the honors curriculum in a major that provides this opportunity. In the economics department, majors must pass two exams in the spring semester; honors students must do this alongside a thesis and an oral defense. Are two exams a sufficient capstone for the non-honors econ major? Depends who you ask, but students should not have to take on the weightly load of honors to do something that inspires them to pursue their own interests.
Our own experience with English comps did not feel productive. We took an exam based on a list of texts we were given in the second semester of our first year on campus. While it’s true that the papers we’ve written in our senior seminars have felt expansive for some, we weren’t sure why being able to rattle off the dates of publication for The Portrait of a Lady and Beowulf for the exam made sense. Waking up that Saturday morning was a highly anxiety-inducing experience which we feel did not inspire a lot of creativity, but rather forced us to cram in a great deal of extraneous information for a five-hour test.
As we consider changes to the curriculum, it seems that one of the reasons why we won’t change is because some things have “always been this way.” This bureaucratic stasis is not helping our graduates be prepared for life off the Hill, an essential component of a successful senior year. We’re encouraged that the sociology department has decided to reform comps to something that seems to be more grounded in a student’s lived experience, and we hope that other departments will follow suit.
The staff editorial was written this week by editor-in-chief Gabrielle Healy ’18 and managing editor Lauren Eller ’18. You can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively.