Christopher Roll and Prof. Judith Frank
Christopher Roll ’17, and Professor Judith Frank

For most of the past 60 years, each senior English major, in order to graduate, had to pass the department’s comprehensive exam—until something better came along.

After a long internal examination on the merits of the examination, the English faculty has retired it for good. 

“The comps were dissatisfying for many reasons,” says Professor Geoffrey Sanborn, the department’s director of studies. “For students, you only heard if you passed or failed, and you got very little feedback. For faculty, we felt we weren’t seeing students’ best written work, given the test’s short time frame.” 

The test is now gone, but not the graduation requirement, nor the sweating over a challenge: In lieu of comps this year, students showed their chops at the first annual English Department Capstone Symposium, a stimulating, eclectic, daylong series of senior English major presentations.

It took place in Frost Library, where students presented their best critical or creative work drawn from an advanced seminar or senior thesis.

“To me, the comps didn’t seem like the best way to culminate the English major experience,” says Gabrielle Edzie ’17. “This is one major where conversation is so important. The study of the English language depends on relationality, on interacting with other people’s ideas.” 

Interaction was clearly the byword. Every one of the 41 majors gave a 10-minute presentation in front of a roomful of students and faculty and then took part in a robust Q&A. 

Grabbing coffee between sessions, the professors compared notes on this inaugural event. “Ingrid said the students asked better questions than her colleagues at other conferences!” cracked Sanborn, referring to Ingrid L. Nelson, assistant professor of English.

Sophie Chung
Sophie Chung ’17 giving her presentation during the English Department Capstone Symposium.

Some English majors read from their creative writing; Edzie shared character studies from her linked story collection, for instance. Others did rigorous analyses of poetry, fiction or media. You could gain insight, that day, on everything from Mary Shelley to the Penobscot creation story to David Foster Wallace ’85 to women’s voices in documentaries.

Here’s just a tasting menu of titles from this buffet: “The Sutpens’ Melancholia in Absalom, Absalom!,” by Brian Kane ’17; “The Black Female Bildungsroman,” by Margaret Banks ’17; “Performing Gender for an ‘Imagined Nobody,’” by Mattie Coacher ’17; and “The Autobiography of My Father,” by Amir Hall ’17.

Sanborn met with students several times to hone their talks, beginning in September; they also watched faculty members give addresses, to get a feel for what worked. By the time the event was at hand, the seniors were primed.

“Events like this build community,” says Edzie. “To see what students chose to present, and to learn what most engaged them over these last four years? That was really cool.”

 From top, presentations by seniors Sophie Chung, Malinda Labriola and Christopher Roll (pictured with Professor Judith Frank)

Malinda Labriola ’17 presenting at the Capstone Symposium.