English Capstone course
Christopher Roll ’17 (l) gave a presentation entitled “Solitary Minds: The Fundamentality of John Joseph Mathews and Henry David Thoreau.” Malinda Labriola ’17’s presentation was entitled “A Seeing Instrument for the Blind: The Penobscot Creation Story.”

For some six decades, 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,” said 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, day-long series of senior English major presentations.

It took place on Feb. 10 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,” said 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.” 

English Capstone course
Sophie Chung ’17 (l) gave a presentation entitled “Chinese-Jamaican: Spatial Expressions of Nation Narrative.” Lauren Tuiskula ’17 gave a presentation entitled “Hyperlinked Spaces in Adichie’s Americana and Toomer’s ‘Cane’.”

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 took part in a robust Q&A. (For logistics’ sake, presentations were grouped by theme.)

Grabbing coffee between sessions, the professors eagerly 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.

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.

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.

So much went into making this Symposium simpatico, said Sanborn. Since September, he met several times with students to hone their talks; they also watched English faculty members give addresses, to get a feel for what worked. By the time the event was at hand, they were primed.

“I was struck by the consistently high level of the presentations,” added Sanborn. “It’s always possible for things to fall flat, or for students to be nervous, or not do their best work. But everyone rose to the challenge. We were all authentically energized by what happened at this first symposium.”

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