Not that this normally happens at Shimer, but because my various classes were spread out across the spectrum of possibilities here, my semester was a series of: this-is-over-but-this-isn't, now-this-is-over-but-I-have-another-essay-due, now-the-last-reading-is-the-last-comp, wait-one-more! And so forth.
In case you're unfamiliar, we don't have exams here at Shimer at all. (Well, they'll tell you this and then you might find yourself looking at a series of questions from IS2 or NatSci1/2. But those aren't tests, we promise. They're more like take-home assessments.) Instead, the semester usually ends with everyone trying to finish all the essays they meant to do over the semester in the last week of classes (because as long as you turn in an essay on time, you can rewrite it as you please until the end of the semester. This goes for pretty much every class. Hence the number of previous blog posts about Hell Week). And you aren't finished then. After classes end, Writing Week takes over: work on your own project, pass a comp or do your thesis, pick your poison. No, really, Writing Week tends to be a lot of fun, because you're working on your own time on your own idea (that is, if you do a project). You are supposed to work on it the whole week, but it's usually not that hard to find something that interests you to do for a week. I've seen people do a week of silence, a week of sculpting, a week of music-making, glass-blowing, back-packing, book-making, or even the more traditional essay-writing. I've done Writing Week projects two semesters in a row... that is, last year. This year was the year of the comps.
Comps are... okay, I'll admit it, they are exams. But they are the only exams that you take at all during the course of your studies at Shimer. They are week-long intensive reading, writing and discussion sessions. Generally you get a long-ish work to read that makes the theme of the rest of the comp. Then you write an eight to ten page essay on a question about that work. Then you have a discussion. Then an in-class essay. Then perhaps another essay or two, taking different forms (such as short answers or letters; they can be more creative, I've heard). It may sound really hard--and I don't want to delude anyone, it's intense--but it's also a crazy amount of fun.
My Basic Comp (which is what you need to pass to take upper level courses and tutorials) was centered around Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard. If you have not read this play, put it on your reading list. It is possibly one of the best modern plays I have ever read. It manages to mix philosophy with science and raw human emotion in such a way as to create beautiful and intricate patterns and stories without even trying. There are so many things to be gotten out of this play. With this kind of subject material for a comp, writing ten pages about it, discussing it and then writing two more essays did not take nearly as much painful effort as I thought it would. The anticipation was the worst part.
That was last semester. This semester was my Area Comp, which is a comp you can take in any of the three basic concentrations: Humanities, Natural Sciences or Social Sciences. I was taking the NatSci comp, so we read Richard Feynman's Six Not-So-Easy Pieces (thanks, Jim). Admittedly, I did not get it the first time through. But after discussing it with the other person taking the comp (there was only two of us, which made it all the more personal and fun) and reading it again, I felt little fireworks of understanding exploding in my brain. This comp was a little different, though, because I was taking it with Weekend College, so I had two weeks to write a eight-page essay, and then come in on Sunday (yes, Sunday!) to do the discussion session, short-answer and in-class essay parts.
Backtrack a few weeks. I've taken classes in Weekday College, Weekend College, and Vandercook College of Music (choir!). These all end, naturally, on different days. So my end of semester went something like this:
End of April: Classes end! No, wait, just my Weekday Shimer classes. Actually, the only tutorial I took on the weekday ended several weeks before. So it's not really Hell Week for me.
Relaxing while everyone else isn't.
First week of May: Writing Week! Wait, but not for me, since I still have Weekend College, and I'll be taking the comp. I put off doing work for Weekend College. Instead, Vandercook classes end, and I get to sing in Vandercook's commencement ceremony. They have their own students play their own music at commencement--too cool.
Second week of May: Oh, crud, there was THAT essay I forgot? This is my own personal Hell Week before the last weekend session. Also I have to move out of the dorms on Sunday right after classes end (approximately an hour after the move-out deadline. I ask for an extension).
Third week of May: I'm home and working on my comp. There have never been so many other things to do as when I'm supposed to be doing this essay.
Fourth week of May: Panic! My essay isn't done! Discussion session, fueled by several late nights of coffee, fixes that mistake.
Sunday, May 31st: I come in to do the comp, and-four hours later-it's DONE! My semester's finally OVER! And I can say that I've completed two years at Shimer.
June 1-2: Break. Ahhhhhhhh. Wait...
June 3: Summer internship starts.
So while the end of the semester was insane, it was also a lot of fun (now that it's over). And my internship is amazing... more about that later.
All I can say is: I miss Shimer already.