I've come to the conclusion — which I shall not be officially sharing with my school — that the comprehensive essays are inefficient for demonstrating comprehension. They are effectively a 50 page essay (not including the title page or Bibliography) in which you discuss the books you choose for a particular subject, such as my last semester's "Women & World Religions." Don't get me wrong: I absolutely loved getting to read the books, and thinking about them, and pondering the many wonderful ideas they gave me. But let's think about this logistically for a moment: I was required to have a minimum of 30 books and 5 articles, organized into three subcategories. The entire essay is required to have a Introduction and a Conclusion, as does each subcategory. In this case, I ended up with a list of 32 books and six articles.

So that's a minimum of 38 pages right there, if we only have one page per piece of writing. If I write very concisely, I can get away with just under two pages each for the entire essay's Intro and Conclusion, and on average only half a page respectively for each subcategory's combined Intro and Conclusion. However, that still adds up to seven more pages, for a total of 45 pages. This means I have only five more pages to part out between the various books. Even if I expand my book reviews to a page and a half, for example, that means I can extensively extol the virtues of… only six books.

Lest you wonder why I'm moaning about having "only" a page to discuss a book, I'll also note that we are required to have 12 point type, double spaced lines, and an inch clearance on all four sides of the paper. Footnotes eat up space too, at the bottom of the page… and each book's review must include the author(s) and a bit of information about them, the year of publication, and the full title.

Here's an example of how much info you have to cram into a footnote, even after noting the above information in the paper:

Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez, "United and Rebel: Challenges and Strategies in Building Alliances of Women of Color Working Against Violence," in The Color of Violence: The Incite! Anthology, eds. Incite! Women of Color Against Violence (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2006), 228.

-and here's a worst-case example of just how much space can be eaten up by making sure the required book information is present:

This request for scientific rigor becomes particularly poignant upon examination of the next selection for this subsection: the 2009 book The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory, jointly authored by James M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer, and Jake Page. … Both Soffer and Adovasio are professors of archaeology: Adovasio is one of the foremost experts today in perishable artifacts, while Russian-born Soffer arrived in the field by way of the fashion and art industries. Page, on the other hand, is heavily involved in editing, publishing, and science writing….

Now, it's not like I'll get into trouble if I go a page or three over the established limit — and, in fact, my comps essay this semester ended up being 52 pages. But still… there's a part of me that's horrified that I'm expected to cram all the amazing research, years of training and background knowledge, intellectual brilliance, fascinating writing, and intriguingly mind-bending postulations of all these wonderful books and authors… into less than a page per book! If nothing else, I feel I am disrespecting the authors by accomplishing this goal.

Which, of course, is not to say that I won't do it. I know quite well there are certain hoops which we are required to leap through in order to get our degrees, and I'm aware of the cynical view which regards a degree as nothing more than an indicator of how many years you're willing to put up with leaping through flaming hoops on command. But that being said… I love the learning! I want to share that, to communicate the wonder and joy of learning these amazing new things to others!

I guess I'm just feeling a little frustrated currently by the somewhat stifling demands of my academic requirements, and trying to explain why some of the book reviews I'll be showing here soon are… well… intellectually rather disappointingly anemic.


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