Though written comps require more preparation and work than oral comps, oral comps are more famous. This probably has to do with the fact that every major does written comps in its own way, so there’s no pervading campus perception of them. While Classics requires simply 2 3-hr writing periods, other department send home pages to read and papers to write. And, students typically have a basic idea of what written comps will look like.
Orals, on the other hand, are the same for everyone. A professor from your major department, your minor department, and one at-large professor talk to you for 50 minutes about your studies, attempting to “tie everything together.” Few give any specific directions beforehand, so a definite sense of mystery surrounds them. Stories abound of off-the-wall questions. I had Dr. Kubiak from Classics, Dr. Baer from Religion, and Dr. Burton, a recently tenured Biology professor, and also FIJI faculty initiate. I’ve had both Drs. Kubiak and Baer for class previously, so that was a positive. I didn’t do anything specifically to prepare.
I regretted not doing so upon walking in, as I saw a map on Dr. Kubiak’s test. Crap, I’m going to have to talk about buildings in Rome. I shouldn’t have been surprised, since I had heard stories of him asking students who had studied abroad there to “walk him through” the city. I was nervous, since I don’t know that much about ancient Rome’s archaeology. Luckily, he had me talk about buildings with more current importance, like the Piazza Navona and the Pantheon. I was a bit tripped up by one of the forums he pointed me to (I don’t even know the name of it now). Then he had me talk about my favorite author, and I picked Vergil. And that was it for Classics. I was expecting some broader questions about the importance or relevance of Classical study, but nope.
With Dr. Baer, I talked primarily about the poetry and theological writings of St. John of the Cross, whom I gave as my favorite area of study when I was abroad. I ended up revisiting him two more times throughout comps, which was surprising, considering I didn’t study him here. He asked me to relate Religion and Classics and how they fit within the Humanities. I classified Classics as the study of culture, a particular kind of culture, while fitting Religion mostly within the category of dialectical religious inquiry. Dr. Baer did a good job of transitioning into different subject questions and, at one point, had me describe the Protestantism of our Chapel.
Dr. Burton presented me with some penciled illustrations of natural specimens and asked me to talk about them. I gave some vague response about how they’re diagrams of how the specimens might work and how their illustration might reflect their actual function, which we know better than their appearance. He said I was basically right; that the artist was a botanist who drew the colorful pictures based on remains.
In all, it went incredibly quickly.