Rachel Hopkin

Folklorist and Radio Producer

Comps Exams and Rites of Passage

24 December, 2013

Earlier this week I picked up my graduation cap and gown, and a sillier outfit it would be hard to find! Even so, it’s a tangible reminder that this Masters in Folk Studies program – to which I will have devoted two happy, if hard working, years – is shortly to end My peers and I are due to graduate on the 11th May. That’s seven weeks away, but between now and then, I have three classes to complete. And I have to take the comprehensive exams.

The comps exams are something you hear about from the moment you start the program and thereafter they maintain a persistent grim presence. The format is this – you get given a reading list that consists of 99 items. Some of the items are websites or journals but the majority are books. You should be more or less familiar with them all and then, over the course of 3 hours, you have to answer a couple of questions that relate to the list as well as to folklore theory in general. No options are given and success in the comps exam is by no means guaranteed regardless of how well you are doing elsewhere in the program.

A couple of weeks ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article by Leonard Cassuto on making comps exams – which he described as a rite of passage – relevant. Cassuto is a professor of American literature at Fordham University and a lot of what he writes about in the article relates to comps exams given as part of PhD programs, as opposed to at the MA level. He does, however, stress that the reading list should be pertinent to your field of study and help you build a knowledge base that will serve you well.

I think both points have been true with my comps list, but that has not made studying for the exam any pleasanter. This morning, in amongst a few hours of revision, I read this in Eckhardt Tolle’s ”Stillness Speaks”:

“Can you detect even the slightest element within yourself of not wanting to be doing what you are doing? That is a denial of life, and so a truly successful outcome is not possible.”

On the basis of that, things do not bode well.

Here’s a photo from 1999, when I graduated first time around:

Rachel at her 1999 graduation ceremony (with a BMus from Trinity College of Music in London)