Petition for Partial Comprehensive Exams:
For the past three years, Millsaps College has either cancelled or modified the comprehensive exam requirements (“Comps”) for seniors in recognition of the many unprecedented disruptions that Millsaps students have faced as a result of COVID-19 and other crises. The Class of 2023 petitions the College to reduce the comprehensive exam requirement by half as they did for the previous graduating cohort; as will be explained below, the many disruptions to learning that Paul Thomas detailed on behalf of the Class of 2022, which the College recognized as warranting a reduction in the Comps requirements, remain relevant to our cohort. Indeed, we have arguably experienced additional stressors to the ones Thomas noted in his petition. As such, we hope that the College will continue to recognize the disproportionate burden that regular Comps will place on the graduating class, and reduce our exam requirements by half.
First and foremost of the disruptions that we have faced in our learning is the COVID-19 pandemic. Paul Thomas wrote that “The education of the Class of 2022 has arguably been affected more than any other class yet”, but the Class of 2023 has dethroned last year’s cohort for this unenviable position. With the exception of the Fall of our freshman year, the Class of 2023 has never truly had a “COVID-free” semester. The Spring of our freshman year saw an abrupt and chaotic transition to online learning. This continued into our sophomore year, during which some in our cohort had an entire year of online-only instruction. Junior year saw a return to in-person instruction with its own learning challenges, as we masked up, socially distanced, and occasionally quarantined, isolated, or temporarily moved to online classes as various members of our community caught or were exposed to COVID-19. Although Millsaps faculty did their utmost to adapt to online teaching and continue to provide quality instruction—and we have no desire to criticize our professors in this regard—the fact of the matter is that our learning experience for at least a third of our undergraduate careers was unduly challenging and impeded by the pandemic.
Throughout our freshman to junior years, we were building crucial foundational knowledge for our majors, an experience that was undoubtedly affected by the pandemic and which will undoubtedly affect our Comps. Although we have slowly returned to “normal” in our senior year, the pandemic has not been our sole crisis. Just as we did during the ice-storm in the Spring of our sophomore year, the start of our senior year saw an unfortunate water crisis that once again cancelled classes and moved us online. The cumulative effect of these mental stressors and logistical challenges has been particularly damaging in our senior year.
Additionally, the institution of the SAPS Supplies program beginning our junior year is a cause for concern. Although the program is an admirable attempt to ensure that all students have access to their required course materials, there is also a significant downside: most students are not allowed to keep their course textbooks and other materials once the semester is over, at least not without incurring additional financial costs to themselves. Considering that the comprehensive exams are based on knowledge obtained throughout all four years of college, but especially from sophomore year onwards, the lack of access to course materials that are key to studying for comprehensive exams is a significant concern for students, and there has yet to be a college-wide policy or response to this issue.
Online learning was difficult, and we are not the only ones to have struggled; the impact of the pandemic on student learning across all levels of education is often discussed in national media. As Paul Thomas pointed out, many colleges decided to waive, and continue to waive, test requirements at the undergraduate and post-graduate levels in light of the challenges that the pandemic has posed for students. Millsaps’ cancellation or reduction of comprehensive exams in the past three years has yet to cause a noted decline in students’ successes post-graduation, and we trust that this will be the case for our cohort as well.
The process of completing our undergraduate degree despite the COVID-19 pandemic and various other disruptions has, in a word, been stressful. Many of us are fatigued in a way that the so-called “Senioritis” does not seem to fully encapsulate. The Millsaps experience is nonetheless a rewarding one, and as we look forward to the remainder of our senior year and our graduation in the coming Spring, we hope that the College will recognize their ability to adjust Comps in a way that maintains Millsaps’ intellectual rigor while administrating with compassion and fairness. Just as they did for the previous graduating class, we humbly ask that the College reduce the comprehensive exam requirements by half.
On behalf of the Class of 2023,
I am writing in response to the petition you sent me on behalf of many of your senior-class colleagues. The Academic Council discussed the petition both virtually and at a recent in-person meeting and has decided that comprehensive exams for this year’s graduating seniors will go forward as planned.
I know this is not the response that you wanted, but I would like to provide a bit of context about the Academic Council’s deliberations and the decision. As I promised students last year, the Academic Council did take up the future of Comprehensive Exams during the 2021-22 academic year. We considered several possible scenarios and solicited feedback, both formal and informal, from faculty in a number of different ways. There was no clear consensus among faculty for any of the options we considered (including eliminating comps altogether or staying with the reduced comprehensive exam model we employed in 2021-22). In the end, Academic Council decided that we would continue with comprehensive exams as described in the College Catalog, but we would encourage all departments to rethink their current practices and use this opportunity to modify their comprehensive exams (within the broad requirements articulated in the Catalog) to better align with our students’ needs and the strategic initiatives of the college, including the emerging Pathways program and the Major Experience. I have included an excerpt from my Dean’s Report from the April 2022 Faculty Meeting below for context.
Following considerable debate and reflection, including faculty views expressed through informal surveys and discussions, the Council decided that Comprehensive Exams provided a distinctive and important capstone experience for the Millsaps undergraduate programs. Further, the current description of Comprehensive Exams in the College Catalog (copied below for reference) provides ample opportunity for departments and programs to modify or re-envision their Comprehensive Exams to better align them with the College’s strategic goal of enhancing experiential learning for all students, the Major Experience graduation requirement and the Pathways program. The Council encourages departments and programs to take this opportunity to think creatively and strategically about planning Comprehensive Exams as a capstone experience that appropriately challenges our current and future students and effectively prepares them for future academic and professional success. The Council sees this as a natural outgrowth of implementing the newly adopted Strategic Plan and its emphasis on student success and belonging across all four years.
Not one member of the Academic Council dismisses any of the extraordinary challenges your class has faced and overcome during your 4 years at Millsaps. In fact, the commencement address from Paul Thomas that you referenced in your petition summarized those challenges well. We congratulate you on persevering and successfully completing your Millsaps experience, despite those challenges. We also feel that the last two years have restored more of a normal Millsaps experience that has prepared your class to demonstrate your learning successes through our comprehensive exam process. Some academic departments have already adjusted their comps in response to the Academic Council’s charge last spring. All of the faculty who administer your class’s comprehensive exams have come through and thoroughly understand the challenges we have all faced over the past few years, and will make appropriate accommodations.
With respect to your assertions about the SAPS Supplies program, I want to clarify a couple of things. First, it is true that what is included with your tuition for most classes is a rental of textbooks, not a purchase. However, the program was designed with two key goals in mind. First and foremost, the program provides basic access to all course materials for all students from the first day of class at no additional cost (after tuition and fees). Secondly, we continue to monitor and work hard to provide the best possible access to materials at the lowest cost, so the college does not have to pass on additional costs through increases in tuition and fees. That means that many of our materials are included as rentals. From the very beginning of that program, though, we were sensitive and reactive to feedback from faculty and students about how to improve the program. We offer, for every class, the opportunity for students to purchase their textbooks at the difference between the rental fee (which is included in tuition and fees) and the purchase price of the textbook. Long before the SAPS Supplies program was launched, students had the opportunity to rent books or sell them back at the conclusion of the semester. In fact, many students took that option; some chose, instead to pay a premium so that they could keep their books for future use. That situation has not changed with SAPS Supplies, the college has simply included the minimum required access in the cost of tuition and fees. The situation you described with some students not having their older textbooks available with which to prepare for comps is real, but it is not new.
We certainly want to do everything we can to facilitate our students’ success in comprehensive exams. To that end, we have asked each department to consider putting sample textbooks and preparatory supplies either on reserve in the library or in a dedicated common area for their majors. We believe that by doing so, we can make the necessary materials available to students studying for comps.
Thank you for the many ways that you and your peers have continued the legacy of excellence at Millsaps College throughout the many challenges you have faced. Your faculty and the Academic Council remain supportive of your progress and inspired by your accomplishments. We wish you well in finishing your Millsaps experience successfully.
Please feel free to forward my message to the students who digitally signed the petition. I’m also happy to speak with you or other representatives if that would be helpful.