I stopped giving in-class final exams a few years ago. It was a light-bulb moment, brought on by a student who needed a disability accommodation—in that case, someone with mild cerebral palsy. I immediately recalled being asked for an accommodation a few years earlier, by a student who said not “I have arthritis” but rather “I need some extra time because of the arthritis that is in my hands,” which seemed a poignant way for a 20-year-old to speak of the strangeness of having arthritis at 20. But this time, rather than simply offering an accommodation to one student (and it was reasonable accommodation, thus required by the Americans with Disabilities Act—just a note to all you professors out there who think that Federal law stops at your classroom door), I asked myself why I was offering in-class final exams in the first place.
Every semester for 15 years, I had been asking students to identify and/or comment on passages from our readings, and then to write a couple of longer essays on various aspects of those readings, and for some reason the essays were (with notably rare exceptions) pretty bad. Why was that? Perhaps, I thought, asking sleep-deprived students to scribble madly in bluebooks for two or three hours wasn’t a good way to get them to say something interesting and coherent about literature.
Now, there is a rule forbidding professors from giving exams during the final week of classes (this year, December 5-9) rather than during finals week (December 12-16), because we don’t want people running off a week early. So in response to my student with CP, I decided to distribute a take-home exam on the final day of class, and then give students 72 or 96 hours to write two essays. That way, the exam itself would be turned in (and graded) during finals week, and students could devote as much (or as little) time to the exam as they desired. I’ve done this ever since.
Fun surprising fact: even when you give some people three or four days to complete an essay exam, they still respond by scribbling madly—or, more accurately, typing madly—for two or three hours. Who could have known? But the even more fun fact is that those students’ exams are readily identifiable as half-assed efforts, whereas the people who put serious thought into their essays stand out all the more clearly. (For example, they dig diligently for textual evidence—something they can’t readily do in the in-class format.) And for extra added upside, I no longer have to decipher students’ crazed, finals-week handwriting. Lastly, for even more extra extra upside, the students who need accommodations—the one with cerebral palsy; the more recent one with carpal tunnel syndrome; and the two with mild dyslexia—get to work at their own pace, like everybody else. It’s like universal design … for final exams.
The only thing I’ve missed, over the past five years, is the “identifications” part of the exam. I know, it’s silly—a test of one’s memory rather than a test of one’s ability to read carefully and think critically. And it was never worth more than one-quarter of the final exam grade. But still, even though it took more time to come up with IDs than to write three or four provocative essay prompts, I liked doing it—and it really did a decent job of revealing which of my students had done the reading, and which were gliding by on half-assed efforts and an ability to bullshit.
So this year, I decided to offer an ID exam on the final day of class (Dec 9), and I asked my students to spend no more than 25 of our 50 minutes on it. Then I finished up Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake by explaining the purpose of art (whew! glad we solved that one at last, and just in time for the holidays), and gave them their take-home essay questions.
The class was a senior seminar. It’s supposed to be a “capstone” experience for our English majors, and the last two I’ve taught (fall 2007, fall 2009) have been pretty wonderful; the best students make the most of the opportunity to lead discussion and burrow intensely into the grainy details of texts, and the more mediocre students, well, they go along for the ride amiably enough. The slackers are exposed. After each of the previous two seminars, about half of my 15 students told me they wished that all their courses at Penn State could be like this one, and that the whole “capstone” thing worked. So I was looking forward to this semester.
With one caveat: thanks to recent austerity measures, enrollment in English senior seminars was bumped from 15 to 20. Not a big deal as austerity measures go, and certainly nothing like the cuts enacted at many other universities. But when you have a class size of 20, it’s a challenge to run the thing as a real seminar, and there are too many opportunities for some students to disappear into the woodwork. So I mentioned all this to my students back in August, not only to caution them not to disappear but also to enlist their help in making a relatively large seminar work like a seminar.
I’m happy to say that the course turned out to be one of my most rewarding experiences as a teacher. Almost every single student did well; many spoke warmly of the course as they left for the break; a few even stayed after the last class to tell me how much they had enjoyed it. (That almost never happens!) This was deeply gratifying partly because it made me feel like I had done a creditable job, but even more because so many students testified to the all-around awesomeness of the readings (in themselves, and for the ways the readings spoke to each other). And the reason that’s important is that I had decided last summer, with some trepidation, to teach a good chunk of the course by working out some of the ideas for my next book.
There are people who frown upon such things at the undergraduate level (cough, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreyfus, cough). It can sound like (and be made to sound like) professorial self-indulgence; indeed, for Hacker and Dreyfus it is damning evidence of How Research Ruins Everything. But I tried to make it clear to my students that I have some rudimentary ideas about this stuff twirling around in my head, and that I genuinely wanted some feedback on them. When I came upon material that I haven’t really worked out well enough to commit to pixels or paper, I said so. Last but not least, from August onward I replied to students’ comments about the boundaries of the human in these novels by saying, “great! now hold that thought for Oryx and Crake in December.” And they did! Margaret Atwood has some new fans, and people are planning to read The Year of the Flood over the break, so overall, senior seminar win.
Oh, right, the ID questions. They’re below, just for fun. The syllabus consisted of eight novels: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes; William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury; Philip K. Dick, Martian Time-Slip; Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon (why this old high-school/ young-adult chestnut? because this, that’s why—and yes, I assigned that essay as well); Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn (sad to say, this one didn’t work as well as I’d hoped); Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time; and Atwood, Oryx and Crake (credit where credit is due: many thanks to the students at Cornell College who suggested it for this lineup after seeing Gattaca last May). Ordinarily, a class will average 16-17 / 20 on the ID section. This class averaged 19 (!), and even that impressive result was skewed by the one student who apparently experienced a brain freeze and answered 15 of 16 instead of 20 of 25.
One final thing before the final. I remarked at the outset of the class that I would not waste any time rehearsing the tired debate about whether speculative fiction is “quality” fiction. You know, where the “quality” fiction writers say “your stupid novels are all about the n-dimensional beings of Effexor 6 and their travels in the anniq” (a real fictional word! from this engaging example of the marriage of cyberpunk and autism narratives) and the speculative fiction writers say “your stupid novels are all about somebody’s divorce in Westchester and how they have a sad.” (That is almost precisely what I said when I told them I wouldn’t waste any time on the tired debate. I don’t think I had the presence of mind to say “Effexor 6,” though.) But when I got to Sven Birkerts’ review of Oryx and Crake I found that I had to vent a little after all, not only because of this…
I am going to stick my neck out and just say it: science fiction will never be Literature with a capital ‘’L,’’ and this is because it inevitably proceeds from premise rather than character
(oh well, so much for Paradise Lost) but because of this:
What Atwood’s inventive treatment of first and last things lacks is a plausible psychological basis. The man who would play God, who would rewrite creation, needs to be something more than a knowingly enigmatic figure conjured onto the page.
Folks, if you’ve read Oryx and Crake, would you be so kind as to tell the rest of the class why Crake does what he does? Because there’s an entirely plausible psychological basis for the actions of this knowingly enigmatic figure. You just have to stop yelling at the kids to get off your lawn long enough to pay attention to it.
Without further ado, then, identify 20 of the following 25 excerpts by author and title. Warning! Excerpts 3, 7, 10, 14 and 21 are misdirections. You think it could be one thing, but it’s another thing. Almost every student figured this out, which is good.
I see everything. That is why I don’t like new places.
I got de ricklickshun en de blood of de Lamb!
Increase of knowledge only discovered to me more clearly what a wretched outcast I was.
“Fonebone!” I shouted.
I’ve got to try to hold onto some of the things I’ve learned. Please, God, don’t take it all away.
It was the hallmark of his aristocratic birth, the natural outcropping of many generations of fine breeding, an hereditary instinct of graciousness which a lifetime of uncouth and savage training and environment could not eradicate.
How come I’m alone? Where’s my Bride of Frankenstein?
Rains are falling from me onto your valuable persons.
Now I understand one of the important reasons for going to college and getting an education is to learn that the things you’ve believed in all your life aren’t true, and that nothing is what it appears to be.
And in the dream nearly everyone on the earth is dead, because they have caught a virus.
Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.
It was bad enough when your father insisted on calling you by that silly nickname, and I will not have him called by one. Nicknames are vulgar. Only common people use them. Benjamin.
He was a soldier of France, and he would teach these beasts how an officer and a gentleman died.
Papaya Czar’s walls are so layered with language that I find myself immediately calmed inside their doors, as though I’ve stepped into a model interior of my own skull.
But the body had its own cultural forms. It had its own art. Executions were its tragedies, pornography its romance.
He saw the psychiatrist under the aspect of absolute reality: a thing composed of cold wires and switches, not a human at all, not made of flesh.
When I call over the frightful catalogue of my deeds, I cannot believe that I am he whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness.
Clayton was the type of Englishman that one likes best to associate with the noblest monuments of historic achievement upon a thousand victorious battlefields– a strong, virile man– mentally, morally, and physically.
As soon as they start doing art, we’re in trouble.
Wheels within wheels.
Perhaps, he had once conjectured, it was because there really was such a condition as autism. It was a childhood form of schizophrenia, which a lot of people had; schizophrenia was a major illness which touched sooner or later almost every family.
And Grandmother has pictures in her head, too, but her pictures are all confused, like someone has muddled the film up and she can’t tell what happened in what order, so she thinks that dead people are still alive and she doesn’t know whether something happened in real life or whether it happened on television.
No more prostitution, no sexual abuse of children, no haggling over the price, no pimps, no sex slaves. No more rape.
What makes it so awkward is that I’ve never experienced anything like this before. How does a person go about learning how to act toward another person? How does a man learn how to behave toward a woman?
Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.
I’ll be back next week with one final post for the year.