What’s That One Comps Question You’ll Never Forget?

Steve Charles—In the Allen Center locker room today I heard Steve Hoffman ’85 and professors David Polley and Tobey Herzog talking about oral comps [the oral comprehensive exams required of all Wabash seniors].

“I can’t believe that was 25 years ago,” Steve said recalling his own experience, noting that Professor Polley had been one of the three professors on his comps board.

“I was nervous, I don’t remember who was in it besides Professor Polley, and it was difficult while I was there,” Steve said. “But I wouldn’t change it for anything. From today’s seniors to alumni from the classes of the 40s and 50s, it’s a common thread. A common bond.”

Senior Daniel King, who just finished his oral comps wrote about the experience on his blog. Here’s a quote: “I had a great experience. My oral comps board were friendly, and we had a great conversation for an hour. We talked about everything from my favorite psychology class to studying in Italy to C&T. It was honestly fun.”

Daniel said being finished was an “odd” feeling: “I’m relieved. But what do I now? I don’t have any papers to write. I dont have any tests to study for. I can just relax…. I guess I’m just not used to that.”

Steve is a major gifts officer for the College now and visits with a lot of alumni. He said that even if they don’t remember all the professors who were in the room, they always remember one question.

For Steve, who majored in biology but had also taken theater classes, that question was: “How do biology and theater complement one another?”

Apparently, comps questions jog professors’ memories, too, for as soon as Steve recalled that question, Dave Polley practically shouted out, “I remember that one!”

The exchange made me want to test Steve’s theory.

So, for all Wabash alumni out there: What’s that one question you remember from your oral comps? Any other memorable moments from the experience?

We’d love to hear them, either as a Comment below, or as an email to me at

In photo: Steve Hoffman ’85 (center) with fellow Sphinx Club members Nate Powell ’09 and Mike Raters ’85 judge another Wabash tradition that brings together the generations: Alumni Chapel Sing.


  1. From a Bio professor as the opening question right after we sat down in Dr. Placher’s office for my Religion, History, and WILDCARD comps board:
    What is religion?
    I asked him how much time we had and if there were any other questions he might want answered first.

  2. Greg Castanias '87

    From the late Norman Strax, Professor of Physics: “How do I know that that table [the table around which the four of us were sitting] is there?”

  3. Steve
    The question I remember most from Oral Comps was the question posed by Dr Shearer (one of my three inquisitors that day): “Jay … draw a supply and a demand curve”. To properly understand the saga of which that question is a part, I must digress a little. In 1965-66 Baxter Hall was under construction. Dr. Shearer was not only a force in the Economic Department at Wabash, he was one of the anchors of Wabash. He had or would serve as head of the Economics Department, Dean of the College, Acting President (his signature is on my diploma), and an assortment of other College positions. In 1965-66 he also was self proclaimed “Clerk of the Works” for the construction of Baxter Hall (HIS Economics Building). If you were in the senior Economics classes at the time, you often were regaled with the latest changes/improvements in the construction of Baxter. In my case, at the ripe age of 21 with all the judgement and maturity that brings, on a number of occassions I cut Dr. Shearer’s class in order to miss the construction update. This did not go unnoticed by the good Doctor. In any event, the “revenge of the Shearer” for cutting class would come in the simple question: “Jay … draw a supply and a demand curve”. I remember that day. I had drawn a particularly difficult group of three professors of which Dr. Shearer was the “chairman”. I was very nervious. In response to this first question … I quickly drew the curves … and then – just as quickly – LABELED THEM WRONG, a simple error which I am sure he and everyone knew was due to nerviousness. However, there was no change in Dr. Shearer (now, I think I remember a slight grin …). For what seemed like the next 20 minutes, he had me working economic models and graphing off my labeled faulty base. Of course, nothing worked. Nothing worked. I explained how it should work but it did not. Then he abruptly stopped further questioning by him and turned me over to the others with a dismissing wave and statement: “Mr. Fisher, you labeled th curves backward.” I was crushed but did manage to function throughout the balance of the session with the others. That spring Comps were passed just fine and I graduated just fine. The next fall, I found myself sitting in the home stands at the home football game, upper left side as you face it; my seatmate most games being Dr. Shearer … now called by me with his approval: Butch. He never ceased smiling and relating that story to whomever might be nearby … describing it as the most important lesson he provided to me at Wabash: “listen, take a breath, and then go forward … and don’t cut my class”. Dr. Shearer – Butch – was/is a friend of mine. Sometimes, now, when I go to a home game I look to the upper left hand side to see if he might, just might, be sitting there and enjoying my lesson.

  4. Charlie Crowley

    I believe I sent this note your way a few years ago as we discussed liberal arts thinking and the entrepreneurial spirit. I’m not sure I would have been asked this question in any other environment.
    My senior year at Wabash I drew the “short straw” and was listed as the first student scheduled for Orals. The previous year’s victims had graduated and moved on and my own classmates had yet to go under the gun. As with generations of Wabash men, I entered the room with three of my professors, collapsed in the proffered chair, and died … almost. They started out slowly, helping build my confidence, leading me (innocent and unknowing) to the precipice of the “unstudied question.”
    Dr. Baker, college poet laureate and professor for my brief foray into Shakespeare, sought to challenge me with a question linking my psychology major to my English minor. I thought this a reasonable action given the obvious significant counseling and therapeutic needs of a significant portion of Shakespeare’s characters. Of course, the anticipated route is often the one least likely to occur.
    As part of my examination, Dr. Spelt had earlier asked me to explain to the gathering the experimental psychology project that I was working on with him. He provided copies of the graph we had developed to present my rat running data on the “Density of Reinforcement.” I had finished that topic and put the graph aside for the day. Dr. Baker would have none of it.
    “Mr. Crowley. What is the relationship between this graph and a Shakespearean sonnet.”
    I’ve never forgotten that question … or the answer!

  5. Apparently Steve’s oral boards question is more common than you might think. I studied biology and was particularly interested in invertebrate and parasite biology. I had also taken one theater class, and the theater professor on my oral board panel asked, “So how does invertebrate and parasite biology contribute to your knowledge of set design?” I just sat there and stared at him. What is it with this combination of biology and theater?

  6. At one point during my Wabash years, the following question was written on the Senior Bench: “Briefly, but in depth, describe God’s contribution to the creation of the universe.”
    Purportedly it was a comps question. Whether that was true or not, it captured the possible challenges of oral comps.

  7. My comps board consisted of Joe Day, Tom Campbell, and Peter Thompson. Professor Day asked questions for the first 15 minutes, then Professor Campbell for the next 15 minutes. Professor Thompson had not uttered a word by the time his turn had rolled around. He stared at me for what seemed like an eternity. It was disquieting. Before speaking, he reached into his shirt pocket (all mathematicians have shirt pockets) and pulled out a half-dollar sized coin and slid it across the table. I examined it. It was ruddy and worn. The edges had thinned and the face was nicked and faded. Still, I could discern the figure of a man holding a staff. And inscribed along the rim to the left of the man was the name Alexandros in Greek. As I was inspecting the coin further, head down in contemplation, the voice spoke: “What would you tell my 12-year old son about this coin?”

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