Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Terminal master's comps

Time for a little shop talk.  I've noticed that my current-but-soon-to-be-former pseudology department imposes comprehensive exams on our grad students, even though we only have a terminal MA program.  This context is new to me, since I was an undergrad at a little college with no graduate studies at all, and then a grad student at a ginormous R1 university that had full PhD programs in a huge variety of disciplines. 

(Sidebar: the spell check in Blogger is annoyed by my use of 'pseudology', but seems to accept 'ginormous' without complaint.  Huh?)

Since no one consults me about any of this stuff here at Ghosttown U., I'll open a dialogue about it with my blogging colleagues.  What, precisely, is the point of comps for a terminal MA program? 

Within academia, pseudology generally requires a doctorate for serious work, and in the private sector, jobs for pseudologists tend to hire for a specific skill set rather than comprehensive theoretical knowledge.  My own experience is not universal, since I went through a full-suite MA/PhD program, but my professors presented comps to me as something that I had to do at the doctoral level as preparation for the research I would later tackle.  Following the usual pattern at DOU, I took the comps during my first year of doctoral study, immediately after I had earned the MA.  Each grad student developed a personalized set of theoretical and methodological questions, in consultation with hir committee members, that were specifically intended to lay the foundation for their doctoral research.   No two people had the same set of questions, for the obvious reason that the questions were always tailored to the student's project.  (I would think that it's relatively common for PhD programs to tailor the comps questions at least a little for the students, since the entire discipline of pseudology is a leviathan, and no human being will ever be even passingly familiar with every last subfield in the manner that the phrase "comprehensive exams" implies.)  Once the student survived the comps, zi was supposed to use the essays zi wrote and hir advisors' comments thereon to structure hir prospectus.  In my own case, a lot of stuff that I wrote during my comps not only went into my prospectus, but thence into my dissertation.  While I don't believe that any of those passages has carried over into my book manuscript, I am sure that the thinking I had to elucidate in my comps helped clarify some ideas that I have drawn upon ever since.

At Ghosttown U., students can't earn a higher degree in pseudology than the MA, which means that those students wishing to pursue a PhD had to go to some other university which, almost certainly, would require them to take that university's comprehensive exams.  Right away, that suggests to me that the MA-level comps are a waste of time and effort, since they would not be recognized as any sort of qualification by a PhD program.  Moreover, I've seen enough of this stuff in process from my TAs to know that all the grad students are given the same general – dare I say boilerplate? – questions, based on the two or three subfields of pseudology that this place is able to teach them. 

The upshot of this is that the grad students, who must all take their comps at the same time this week, are currently in a lather about passing these ridiculous exams that do not demonstrate anything other than the fact that the students have been forced to cram a bunch of fiddly details about various kinds of lies in which pseudologists might specialize.  It does not demonstrate acquired mastery of the basics of the discipline — certainly not as I understand my own discipline.  It does not demonstrate depth of knowledge in the few subfields that these comps even touch upon, since no one has taught our students anything in depth, and they sure as hell don't understand this material in depth.  (I have talked with my current and former TAs enough to know that.)  It does not qualify them to skip the comps if they go on to doctoral studies at another university.  It does not make them any more qualified than they already were to apply for private-sector pseudology jobs.  The entire idea of students wielding any sort of 'comprehensive' knowledge of the field after a single year of courses on a mere fraction of the fundamental subfields is utterly laughable.  Why do this to the poor students? 

From my perspective, these MA-level comps are simply gratuitous torture.  In the experience of my readers, is this categorically true of MA-level comps?  Or, as the case may be, is Ghosttown U.'s pseudology department just incompetent at designing useful exams?


  1. First of all, I'm behind on my blog reading, so I just wanted to say congratulations on the new job!!!

    Now, about MA comps...when I was grad director for our MA program, we had a stupid "comprehensive" exam that was anything but. The Canterbury Tales stood in for the entire Middle Ages, there were three early modern texts, and so on up through the present day in 33 texts. It was hard to write coherent questions for it, and even the best students wrote dumb answers to our dumb questions. So I lead the charge to get rid of the damn thing, in part because other MA programs were doing likewise and, as you point out, any student going on to a PhD program would have to take *real* comps/quals anyway. But instead of replacing the exam with a thesis, I moved to replace it with a portfolio of revised work that looks like the kind of work we actually produce in professional publications. Imagine that!

    I don't think Ghosttown U is incompetent at designing useful exams -- those kinds of exams are in themselves pretty useless.

  2. I'd say that it sounds like a colossal waste of time. Do the MA students have to produce some kind of thesis or capstone project before graduation? If so, then the comps should be killed with fire. In my program, which offered both M.A. and Ph.D. tracks, the people only pursuing an M.A. would not take comps. Those of us going straight through would take Ph.D. comps at the end of the M.A. portion of our program in order to be admitted to candidacy. People coming in w/ an M.A. from elsewhere would take comps upon completion of coursework. Definitely worked well for everyone involved.

  3. Without getting too far into the details of my program, we did something closer to what Dr. Virago is describing--MA paper portfolios at completion of MA (and for students leaving with an MA or going elsewhere for PhD work, which was a reasonable number--we had shitty funding), comps taken towards the end of coursework/while writing proprosal. My program did have common exams for all students taking an exam in the same field, but my discipline is less fragmented than pseudology. I'd agree that asking students to prepare written work at the MA point would be more useful...perhaps is Ghosttown U worried that the papers would be too shitty to reflect well on the department, and than an exam is less embarrassing?

  4. At a certain somewhat prestigious M.A. in Arab Studies program at a university that begins with the name of the first president of the united states and ends in town, there were similar somewhat ridiculous oral comprehensive exams. Students had the option of doing an honors thesis instead, but the two were hardly comparable.

  5. Because the damn accrediting body or state board of regents wants them sometimes to measure "outcomes". (And it's less work for faculty than a portfolio.) This is a new thing.