Seniors and departments face unique challenges with remote comps

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Margot Heron/The Occidental

For weeks, Tyler Melchisky (senior) has been told the archive managers were not in the office at San Francisco State University (SFSU). A history major and Urban & Environmental Policy (UEP) minor conducting his senior comprehensive project on U.S. veterans after World War II, Melchisky had his eyes on SFSU’s labor archives. He had already given up on another source of interest — University of California Davis’ microfilm reservoir — because of its inaccessibility due to COVID-19.

Senior comprehensives, shorthanded as “comps,” are the projects or requirements every Occidental student must complete before graduation; they are a final, summative demonstration of each student’s education at the college. Depending on the academic department, the comps format varies, from creating artwork to taking an economics test to doing research in the social or natural sciences.

Many of these projects adjusted as Occidental went fully remote this fall. Eric Frank, professor of art history, said he has noticed that students in many different disciplines are specifically researching COVID-19. Frank is also co-chair of the college’s Human Subjects Research Review Committee, which helps prepare any students whose research involves human subjects to apply and receive approval from the Institutional Review Board. Frank said one of the main changes of research involving human subjects is that all interviews now have to be virtual. He said his committee, which every year receives 150–200 research proposals from students, concluded it is too risky to send student researchers out into communities for in-person interactions. Frank said this change particularly affects oral researchers whose methodology relies on one-on-one, in-person interviews.

Gathering sources

Bethany Widen (senior) is a history major currently doing her comps on young Southern womanhood during the Civil War, an expansion of her research in the Undergraduate Research Center’s 2020 Summer Research Program. Widen said she is using online archives of a few women’s diaries during that period as her primary sources. She said she was lucky to have begun the research process early and has not had to worry about accessing materials.

“The big rule of history comps is finding a good set of primary sources that not a ton of other people or historians have really analyzed in the way that you want to analyze them,” Widen said.

Widen and Melchisky both said it has been more difficult to find primary sources remotely.

Melchisky said he has found the college’s library services helpful in providing him with historical documents such as newspaper clips from publications such as the LA Times and the Los Angeles Sentinel. He said the pandemic has forced him and other students to be creative in finding sources remotely, especially with reduced staff at libraries. Melchisky, who lives a few miles away from campus and frequents LA public libraries in normal times, said his sourcing approach would have been different if not for the pandemic.

“I definitely would have been able to go to either UC Riverside — and maybe accessed their collections — [or] gone down to the public library and seen what they had to offer, and just really traverse the surrounding LA institutions that would have been able to really contribute to the project,” Melchisky said.

Navigating technical difficulties

For psychology majors Audrey Todd (senior) and Amelia Blankenau (senior), both of whom are doing honors comps, their main challenge is technology instead of methodology.

According to Todd and Blankenau, students of social science studies use the statistical analysis software SPSS. Through Oxy’s Virtual Computer Lab, facilitated by Information Technology Services (ITS), students and faculty can access a range of software programs remotely via their own devices.

“It’s definitely a lot slower and more laggy to use on my personal computer than it would be if I were on campus, so it’s just a lot more frustrating to work with [data], especially when you have to share your screen with other people on Zoom,” Blankenau said. “Cleaning the data, coding the data, which basically means getting it ready to be analyzed, … that’s just a very tedious and time-consuming process and it’s definitely more stressful when things take longer to load or things crash.”

Todd said the technical difficulties she encountered with the remote access server meant she sometimes had to send the data to her professor to run the analysis.

“That’s really annoying — the technical issue — and that, that’s the biggest barrier that I’ve faced with having everything be online,” Todd said. “If I was at Oxy, that would definitely be a lot easier.”

According to Blankenau, both Todd’s and her honors comps are survey-based research projects which recruit participants online through social media and email digests. Similar to Widen, Blankenau said her methodology has barely been affected.

“I would have been spending many, many hours in the basement of Swan on their physical desktop computer analyzing my data, rather than being at home,” Blankenau said.

Diana Keeler, manager of digital production for the Media Arts & Culture (MAC) major, said her department had to make changes to its comps process because of the pandemic.

Production-track MAC majors produce and direct an original film from scratch, so they need to be able to access equipment, no matter where they are located. Because equipment is limited, the department has split production majors into two groups who film at different times, Keeler said. There was also additional planning — and collaboration with James Uhrich, Michael Redfern and Gabriela Ortega from ITS — required to ensure each student has access to editing software, according to Keeler.

“If a student didn’t have a computer that was robust enough for editing … we worked with ITS and got a good editing machine that can edit 4k video and sent that out,” Keeler said. “And we also worked with Mike and got [Adobe] Creative Cloud licenses individually for all of our students so that they all have Premier. So basically, everybody has their own little production house at their home.”

‘You can’t all be in the library together’: Challenges of isolation

Some less comps-specific stressors persist for the seniors, such as feelings of isolation and disconnect from their intellectual community, lack of peer feedback and productivity issues.

Margot Heron/The Occidental

Todd said because psychology honors is optional, she did not know anyone else besides Blankenau who chose to pursue it. She said she feels the college has done little to build community between seniors or help them deal with stress. Blankenau said it would be helpful to have a space for students working on similar projects.

“It could be nice to get together occasionally, like we did for summer research last year, to talk with other students who are going through the same thing — that may make more of a community,” Blankenau said.

Blankenau said she is lucky to continue her research in the remote setting, but she knows some other students are unable to do so.

JP Flores (senior) is a biology major with an emphasis in cell and molecular biology. While his plans to go to the field to collect fish-hunting cone snails for his research in the Schulz lab were cancelled, along with his plan to present at a conference in Australia, Flores said his comps research on microbiomes’ effect on Parkinson’s disease has barely been affected. His methodology consists mainly of reading papers and synthesizing and interpreting data. However, Flores said he does miss in-person interactions.

“You can’t all be in the library together and helping each other out, being there for each other, supporting each other in the remote environment. We have that, but it’s not the same, obviously,” Flores said. “Like I can’t give a hug to someone who I know is struggling.”

Finding silver linings

As a transfer student a year and a half ago from Pasadena City College, Melchisky said he appreciates Occidental’s small and tight-knit community even in the remote environment. He said he is thankful for the college’s effort in helping students navigate available resources. Library staff have given guided tours of the library’s online archives to comps classes, walking students through the process of reserving or accessing sources, which was helpful according to Melchisky.

“Oxy itself has really transformed this semester and really provided an extensive amount of resources through online databases, having librarians available, [and] still being able to check out books,” Melchisky said.

Sarah Yi (senior) said although remote learning has made everyone’s research process more independent and isolated than usual, professors have provided many resources and are doing their best to accommodate students and find solutions to difficulties posed by the remote format.

A UEP and computer science double major, Yi designed both of her comps on the topic of racial biases in police traffic stops. Yi said there is a three-week cycle in her computer science comps class where students are divided into three groups and do different sorts of work each week. She said this not only gives students flexibility but also creates a system of accountability.

Keeler said, despite the obvious challenges for MAC’s production-track comps, she is very optimistic and excited about the work MAC seniors will produce.

“The stories I’ve seen so far are just amazing,” Keeler said. “I think that students are really thinking through creative ways of making very cool projects, even just by themselves.”

For seniors doing research comps, there is still much to look forward to. Todd is applying to graduate school for a marriage and family therapy (MFT) program. Blankenau is drafting her paper and planning to submit to a journal that specializes in the experiences and psychology of sexual minorities. Both Widen and Melchisky are excited for their final comps presentations.

And on a morning three weeks after Melchisky sent the first email to SFSU, he opened his inbox and found an email with all the images he wanted from the labor archives scanned and sent to him as requested.

This article was revised Nov. 14 at 11 a.m. to correct formatting and remove the name of an academic journal for peer review anonymity.