Final exam

by Michael Bérubé on December 17, 2011

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.



J. Otto Pohl 12.17.11 at 7:36 pm

I would love to give take home exams. But, my smallest class is 70 students (400 level) and the university requires that we give a final in class exam worth at least 70% of the total grade. Given the large number of students in each class the proctored exam is indeed the best way to go. But, if I had classes of only 20 students per a class and it were allowed sure I would definitely have them write papers at home instead of spending three hours writing three essays.


LFC 12.17.11 at 8:02 pm

Re Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn: I couldn’t get through all of Fortress of Solitude, though there’s some brilliant writing in it, and haven’t read anything else of his. But my estimate of Lethem zoomed upward several years ago when someone I know who met him on one occasion subsequently reported that he said he’d read all of Iris Murdoch’s novels. This is double hearsay or something, so take with the appropriate grain(s) of salt.


mpowell 12.17.11 at 8:31 pm

I always hated essay exams as a student. They made my hand hurt, I am convinced I received worse marks because writing that much in that short of time caused my handwriting to degrade into the barely legible (even by me!) and it’s hard to write a decent essay with no opportunity for real editing. And it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anyways! Just writing essays normally works just fine. Just a question though: how would you describe a take home essay final as different from an essay with a 1-2 week period to finish?


James 12.17.11 at 8:46 pm

Nice post. I am probably a lot younger than you and I just realized how great in-class examinations can be. First, they are closed book and closed notes. Students can only bring a 3 x 5 index card to class. Second, it renders online paper mills useless. Google cannot save you. You cannot simply cut and paste from one page to another. Third, you really have to know the material. Moreover, given the way I set my exams up, you have to be creative in your analysis. Fourth, you have to go back and read those areas of the assigned reading material that you neglected earlier.

Given the existence of the “The Shadow Scholar,” I will continue to give in-class examinations.


James 12.17.11 at 8:50 pm

By the way, my best students (those that study) see it as a breeze, because they have been studying, reading, taking notes all semester. Those students who preferred to spend their time chilling in class, staring at me with furrowed brow, not engaging in discussion, buying the wrong text intentionally always have a problem. It’s no wonder some of their “hands hurt” as much as their head did.


Larry Davidson 12.17.11 at 9:00 pm

Am I the only one worried about security and integrity? When you give a take-home exam, how do you know who is actually writing the essays?


Greg Whitfield 12.17.11 at 9:07 pm

I’ve read Oryx and Crake and I’ll confess that I didn’t understand Crake’s motivations. Sure the world’s pretty awful, but that’s too impersonal a reason, no?


Wrye 12.17.11 at 9:12 pm

Usually a take home exam has much more tightly focussed question(s) and shorter, stricter length requirements, so the issue is not filling the length or coming up with ideas about what to argue but instead making careful choices about how you make your argument. Give me a well designed take home over an open-ended loosey-goosey essay assignment any day.


Marc 12.17.11 at 10:30 pm

What made Motherless Brooklyn not work? I haven’t read Martian Time-Slip, or Tarzan, or Oryx and Crake, but the common thread I can see in the others would make Motherless Brooklyn seem to fit in an interesting way.


Meredith 12.17.11 at 11:03 pm

My only problem with take-homes: students often focus on them to the detriment of their other courses. Things must vary with each school’s end-of-semester practices and rules (last due date for papers in a course with a final or without a final; self-scheduled exams; scheduled finals; the amount of time between last day of classes and first day of scheduled exams). But where I teach, students obsess over take-homes precisely because they anticipate that the professor will read their essays with the same high standards set for their regular papers. It’s possible that your students produced such good essays for you at the expense of preparing properly for their Chemistry or French exams, to be held the day after their take-home for you was due.
A compromise I’ve arrived at: give students the prompts/questions ahead of time, but have them actually write their essay(s) in the regularly scheduled (or self-scheduled) exam time. Let them bring books to the exam.
The prospect of this is enough to encourage them to keep up with the readings during the semester (which makes for better class discussions, their better learning overall — the purpose of even giving a final in a literature course, from my point of view), and their essays are more likely to be thoughtful and interesting than if they were hit with prompts/questions only as they sat down to take the test.
Handwriting is another problem….


maidhc 12.17.11 at 11:40 pm

Maybe with only 20 students you can know each student’s work individually, but in general a problem with take-home exams is that students can pay someone else to do it for them. Hiring someone to take an in-class exam for you can be detected by checking photo IDs, so it’s less likely. It does happen though; one case I’m familiar with resulted in criminal convictions for both parties.


Tim O'Keefe 12.17.11 at 11:41 pm

I usually have take-home essay exams for my senior-level classes and in-class essay exams (with some short answers too) for my lower-level classes. But for the in-class essay exams, I distribute the possible essay questions a week beforehand. The students can’t bring in notes, but they know exactly what they have to prepare. Out of (say) 5 possible essays, 3 will appear on the exam, and they have to write on 2 out of the three. I’ve been pretty happy with the way this has worked. I think it helps the students with learning the material as they prepare for the exam.


Tom Hurka 12.17.11 at 11:48 pm

A large part of the point of a traditional final exam is not the exam but the studying for it. If you don’t know the questions in advance you have to review all the course materials in order to be able to answer a question on any one of them. In my undergraduate days I often learned more from that period of studying (look how A relates to B!) than from the classes that preceded it. And a take-home exam doesn’t really make you do that — you get the questions, decide which ones you’re going to write on, and concentrate just on them. Of course the benefit of a traditional final only comes if there’s enough time between the end of classes and the exam, which not all universities now give.

My favourite exam experience from the past? Four 3-hour essay-type exams in two days, the last with three one-word topics — pick one. But (alas) those days are gone.


Michael Bérubé 12.18.11 at 12:32 am

@ 1: the university requires that we give a final in class exam worth at least 70% of the total grade

Yikes. I can understand the requirement for an in-class exam (for reasons that maidhc and Larry Davidson touch on — more on those in a moment), but 70 percent of the grade seems punitive. Though I suppose much depends on the expectations of the discipline and/or institution. I place more weight on the work students do over the course of 16 weeks than on their performance in a final.

And yes, it’s always possible that they can cheat on a take-home — just as they can cheat on essay assignments in general. So you can run their exam essays through if you so desire, just as you might their other essays. I like Meredith @ 10’s suggestion for a compromise, though it doesn’t answer the “illegible handwriting” and “disability accommodation” questions.

I do offer in-class midterms (two of them, this time around), and I do see the benefits of those. But I found that most students’ in-class finals are considerably worse than their in-class midterms. I blame Bush Obama the schedule of finals week.

As to Meredith’s other objection:

It’s possible that your students produced such good essays for you at the expense of preparing properly for their Chemistry or French exams, to be held the day after their take-home for you was due.

If they took time away from Chemistry or French, then they didn’t plan very well. This time around, they had 84 hours to produce two 800-word essays. That should have left plenty of time for their other courses — and, of course, their essays were due on the first day of finals week, leaving the rest of the week open.

Marc @ 9: What made Motherless Brooklyn not work?

It was kinda subtle, but it went something like this. In The Sound and the Fury, Martian Time-Slip, and Curious Incident, intellectual disability actually warps the texture of the narrative in fascinating ways — going all the way back to how Don Quixote’s “madness,” his inability to distinguish fiction from reality, actually produces (in Book II) a world in which the Don’s fiction has become reality. Whereas the disability in Motherless Brooklyn (Tourette’s) seems more ornamental; it doesn’t produce a fundamentally different kind of narrative technique altogether, just a string of tics and outbursts in an otherwise conventional novel. On the other hand, it offers some fun with metonymy, and a link between intellectual disability and the detective genre (Curious Incident, Monk), so there’s that.

Greg Whitfield @ 7: I’ve read Oryx and Crake and I’ll confess that I didn’t understand Crake’s motivations.

Spoiler alert! OK, first stop yelling at those kids. Then go back to the scene in which Crake is telling Jimmy how and why his father died, leaving him (Crake) in a recognizably Hamletesque situation in which his “uncle” marries his mother after having his father killed. Basically, Crake decides that (a) the world is dying, and (b) the species that is killing it, which also happens to be deliberately infecting people with new diseases for the short-term profit of the One Percenters in the Compounds, isn’t worth saving, and needs to be replaced with a less rapacious version (with an estrus cycle and no sexual violence, as in excerpt 23). So he has a clear psychological basis, micro and macro — he just doesn’t have the right to redesign the species.


bianca steele 12.18.11 at 12:54 am

Birkerts said pretty much the same thing about Powers’ characters in the early 1990s. I wonder why he keeps reviewing these SF crossover type novels if he dislikes them so much.

And 14 was really tricky? Were there Papaya Czars in Mary Shelley’s England that I didn’t know about?


Number Three 12.18.11 at 1:07 am

On Lethem–I didn’t hate Motherless Brooklyn, but wasn’t crazy about it either. In some ways, Lethem is the archetype of the modern, “literary” writer. Just too much going on there. A noir with a Tourette’s sufferer as protagonist? OK . . . As an earlier commentator said, I found Fortress of Solitude completely unreadable. (It was the only book I had on a work trip, and I stopped reading maybe 50 pages in. Maybe it gets better after that.) I think that there is a very limited number of readers who find him readable/enjoyable.


Janice 12.18.11 at 1:17 am

I abandoned take-home exams years ago after seeing how that ramped up student anxiety (and other professors’ expectations) – all of a sudden, students were spending days trying to research, prepare and polish even more essays.

These days, I assign portfolios in my upper-year courses. Students are given the requirements from day one: comment on at least one of the critical essays we study, analyze one of the primary sources we’ve used, apply those techniques to a new-to-them source from a provided list, showcase their best contributions to the discussion board, etc.

I love the portfolios because they allow me to test a lot of the same skills I used to seek in exams but a smart student can tackle the bits and pieces beginning fairly early in the term. The assignment also encourage them to think about building a body of work that demonstrates their abilities as researchers, critics and writers. Since very few of them go on to graduate work in the professions but many of them do need to use these skills in other ways, it’s a win/win proposition!


nick 12.18.11 at 3:30 am

I too was outraged by that Birkerts review–which led to what will probably be my only appearance in the paper of record:

Glad to see you teaching PKD in this context, Michael–I found that book almost unbearably moving, rereading it not so long ago….


js. 12.18.11 at 3:38 am

This is interesting because my dislike of in class exams composed of essay questions has led me to make these (both midterms and finals) mostly (sometimes entirely) objective, with maybe some short answers (1 paragraph or so). Though I should note that this is mostly for large lecture courses (100+ students) almost always taken by non-majors.

For upper level courses where almost all the students are majors, I assign a final paper (and no final exam). I guess I find this to be more or less natural because this was the standard assignment where I went to college (the long-ish final paper for upper-level courses; not necessarily the objective exams for intro courses). And I had sort of assumed (wrongly?) that this wasn’t at all unusual in the humanities.


LFC 12.18.11 at 4:18 am

Number Three @16
To clarify my earlier comment, unlike you I didn’t find The Fortress of Solitude completely unreadable — I didn’t finish it but I got about halfway through, perhaps a bit more. Part of my problem with it was that the pop culture context — comic books, the particular music involved, etc. — just didn’t interest me that much. And after a while the characters lost their hold on me somewhat. But there are one or two passages or phrases — one in particular — that have stuck with me b/c they were so original and striking. And I think the friendship between the two boys, the white kid (and perhaps Lethem alter ego) and the African-American kid (both of whom are followed into adulthood), is quite well done.


Gene O'Grady 12.18.11 at 6:12 am

It may only indicate my personal inadequacies as a student, but I’m pretty my sure my exam essays, including my undergraduate honors comprehensive essays of which I’ve always been sort of proud, were almost always better than the course papers I produced.

On the question of professors teaching from their books, I had the perhaps unique experience of taking two graduate courses on quite obscure texts (the scholia to the Prometheus Bound and Plutarch’s de malignitate Herodoti) with scholars who had produced editions of those texts and both courses were remarkably valuable for that very reason. Perhaps even more remarkable given the primitive technology they had to use to produce some kind of photos of the MSS.


StevenAttewell 12.18.11 at 9:00 am

Berube – good for you! I always preferred papers to in-class exams when I was an undergrad, and even more so when I became a TA.

In the end, what kills the in-class exam for me is the artificiality of the exercise; you’re teaching kids a skill they will use nowhere else. And lest anyone think I’m suggesting some crass professional training ethos, I think it holds for academics/intellectual life in general. When is it a good thing for people to avoid consulting sources or notes (when we desperately want them to do it and they don’t nearly as much as they need to) – given that scholars rely on their research library/skills all the time? When do we actually require memorization, analysis, and grasp on the material in a time-limited, closed-book context? Why make mulling over an idea over time, editing and refining an argument difficult if not impossible?

If grace under fire is the purpose of the exercise, oral exams make more sense, and even we at least apply the correct standards for extemporaneous thought there.


J. Otto Pohl 12.18.11 at 11:17 am

The at least 70% for final grades is fairly recent. It used to be 100% across the board. It is the old British system.


Antonio Conselheiro 12.18.11 at 1:54 pm

In the end, what kills the in-class exam for me is the artificiality of the exercise; you’re teaching kids a skill they will use nowhere else.

Writing fast and efficiently is necessary in journalism and useful for lawyers.


chris 12.18.11 at 2:38 pm

@24: but it would be nuts for either to work closed-book and closed-notes. And they do use word processors that allow them to do at least some revision, rather than writing everything longhand.


tomslee 12.18.11 at 3:09 pm

The fact that debate over the strengths and weaknesses of various forms of exam continue after decades (centuries?) is surely proof that there is no one best method of assessment and that a continually changing variety of courses with a variety of assessment methods, some chosen capriciously and some with deliberation, is the proper collection of paths.


Mo 12.18.11 at 3:56 pm

I’ve gone back to school to finish my degree and there still tends to be the standard in-class final where there are identifications, short answers and two short essays. However, there is an innovation that often more than two potential essay questions are given at the last class, and sometimes you are allowed to bring a prepared answer to one of them to the exam. Sometimes there is a “bonus” essay question revealed at the exam.

I’ve found that this is a good level of flexibility for me. Take home exams really can become anxiety producing time sinks. I write well on the fly and just getting the ideas down without worrying about the logical structure of their written presentation is probably a better measure of my knowledge of the material. But sometimes I know that I am going to need the time on the rest of the exam and will write an essay.


Another Damned Medievalist 12.18.11 at 4:11 pm

I like in-class essay exams. Always have, as a student and as faculty. I was talking to a colleague about this the other day, and he asked why, because the quality of work on a take-home is so much better.

That’s true, but they measure different things. One is thinking on one’s feet, based on having really learnt a lot and internalized it. The other is slower thinking and composing. Both are good, and both should be assessed, I think. But in-class exams also give an edge to the students who really have been paying attention to how things fit together AND have been studying. Only about 40% of my course grades are based on an in-class midterm and final, but they really help to separate the very good from the ok.

Where I find the difficulties is getting students to understand that they have to be able to learn enough to talk about things with specific examples…



Michael Bérubé 12.18.11 at 4:29 pm

bianca @ 15: And 14 was really tricky? Were there Papaya Czars in Mary Shelley’s England that I didn’t know about?

No, it was just a misdirection. A couple of people identified it as Curious Incident, where the profusion of signs and stimuli overwhelms Christopher.

nick @ 18: that NYT letter is full of win. That’s exactly right — Birkerts is mouthing a workshop-fiction piety that basically excludes everything but the domestic realism of the past couple centuries. And back to bianca @ 14, yeah, that’s what all those people (William Deresiewicz included) say about Powers’ work, even when, as in The Echo Maker, his characters rather than his ideas drive the story, and the characters themselves aren’t as relentlessly clever as the Hobsons from Prisoner’s Dilemma (a novel I love and have taught often, btw). Apparently there’s a whole mess of Quality Fiction people out there whose heads hurt when fiction has Ideas in it. I even came across a review of Oryx and Crake that complained about the couple expository paragraphs about the pigoons.

Janice @ 17, I like the portfolio idea and will steal borrow it. But I’m still required to give final exams, all the same. And what SteveAttewell said @22, a fortiori for the old M.A. exam at Illinois that required students to bang out essays, from notes, on a department computer from 9 to 5. Talk about your totally untransferable skill.


Antonio Conselheiro 12.18.11 at 4:36 pm

25: It’s an exercise, though, not a method. Football players don’t lift weights on the field. Being able to recall what you know in a hurry, and as far as that goes, being able to fudge, are essential skills in a lot of situations. And various sorts of people are expected to have immediate recall of essential information — e.g. MDs.

Oral exams would be even more like this aspect of real life, but they’re too labor-intensive in examiners.


Aulus Gellius 12.18.11 at 5:09 pm

I remember that Birkert essay being maddening — partly because I thought he had some interesting things to say, if he hadn’t tried to force them into a this-must-be-bad-because-it’s-not-like-Dickens mold.
I think it’s a common disease of our age (or perhaps, the age which is just ending) to think that “literature” and “the realist novel” are synonyms. So you get these bizarre arguments that claim they’re just rejecting some kind of new-fangled post-modernism, but by implication end up throwing out Homer and Dante.


bianca steele 12.18.11 at 6:10 pm

I’ve only read Chronic City and some of Lethem’s essays in the New York Times (which is why I gave the novel a try, as from the reviews it sounded unpromising), and I’m pretty sure there was a Papaya Czar in that too, though I might have been able to guess it was the Lethem by process of elimination, only because of useless cultural capital.

I don’t like either the Shelley or the Atwood as attempts at gender equity, if that’s what they are, but I can’t think of anything better (the Atwood is too obviously a painful attempt to write about boys for a change, and I don’t see why should “women’s issues” equal “childbirth”). Never Let Me Go seems too English, and The Children of Men is an old person’s book, so likely neither of them would work well, and I’m not sure either is about disability. A.S. Byatt and Rebecca Goldstein both have books about mental disability (A Whistling Woman and Properties of Light) that might also not work well.


bianca steele 12.18.11 at 6:12 pm

Basic Black could be about mental disability, I suppose, if you assume the main character sees ghosts because she’s mad, not because there really are ghosts. But Hilary Mantel has said she’s seen ghosts herself, so probably not.


nostalgebraist 12.18.11 at 6:40 pm


In The Sound and the Fury, Martian Time-Slip, and Curious Incident, intellectual disability actually warps the texture of the narrative in fascinating ways—going all the way back to how Don Quixote’s “madness,” his inability to distinguish fiction from reality, actually produces (in Book II) a world in which the Don’s fiction has become reality. Whereas the disability in Motherless Brooklyn (Tourette’s) seems more ornamental; it doesn’t produce a fundamentally different kind of narrative technique altogether, just a string of tics and outbursts in an otherwise conventional novel. On the other hand, it offers some fun with metonymy, and a link between intellectual disability and the detective genre (Curious Incident, Monk), so there’s that.

What’s funny is that, as a person with Tourette’s, I actually thought Lethem (or, at least, his protagonist) was making a bit too much of the broad psychological effects of Tourette’s. All of that stuff about how his “Tourette’s brain” caused him to view this or that situation in this or that way rang false, since in reality Tourette’s is just a highly specific and uninteresting set of compulsions without broader consequences for personality or worldview. Granted, the line between Tourette’s and OCD is often a blurred one, and in the more OCD-ish stretches of my Tourette’s, I have had experiences that are a lot like the ones Essrog attributes to his “Tourette’s brain.” But still, it felt a bit too much like an attempt to make psychologically interesting an ailment so specific and boring that it doesn’t feel right to call it an “intellectual disability” at all — it feels more analogous to, say, phantom limb pain than to other psychological disorders. (You often feel a spontaneous need to perform certain motions or make certain sounds, and that need feels almost exactly like the need to breathe that you would feel after holding your breath for a while. That’s it. No distortions of perception, thought, etc., not even the very mild ones Lethem includes in his attempt to make Tourette’s interesting in a literary sense.)

I did really enjoy the novel, though. Except for its obvious applications as a plot device, the Tourette’s felt very superfluous, just a bit of surface-level quirkiness, like naming your protagonist “Lionel Essrog.” It’s a entertaining and well-written book, but not really one that’s about “intellectual disability,” at least not in any interesting or insightful way.

(This post is not really on topic but I hope someone out there finds it interesting enough to warrant its inclusion.)


nostalgebraist 12.18.11 at 6:49 pm


I think it’s a common disease of our age (or perhaps, the age which is just ending) to think that “literature” and “the realist novel” are synonyms. So you get these bizarre arguments that claim they’re just rejecting some kind of new-fangled post-modernism, but by implication end up throwing out Homer and Dante.

My favorite example to bring up when faced with this sort of thing is Shakespeare, since he did pretty much everything that those wacky postmodernists are accused of doing. Making up words? Including low comedy, puns, etc. in otherwise highly sophisticated works? Including fantastical elements*? Writing artificially hyper-clever dialogue? I haven’t even gotten to the plays-within-plays yet! Sooooo pomo, dude.

*Obviously this was not a bold move at the time or anything, but it bears mentioning since some people actually do seem to have a double standard about this sort of thing.


Meredith 12.18.11 at 8:58 pm

@31 and @35. My favorite example is Homer. What most interests me, though, is the postmodernist embrace of a Homer or Shakespeare once they’re recognized to be up to those “postmodernist” things. In Homer’s case, the interest in oral traditions of poetry prompts comparisons to the internet and “flat worlds” (often naively: only classicists seem interested in exploring the social structures and structures of power that “authorize” traditional oral texts, the ways “postmodernist” moves need not be all that “subversive”).

Back to Michael @29: the main disability issue that I worry I don’t adequately address is the student with a dyslexia or some other condition (including being on certain medications — god, are students medicated these days) that means they need more time for tests than the five-minutes I’ve allotted for a quiz or for a class hour test or two-and-a-half hour final. (Most testing I do is in language classes.) Students can always let me know if they need extra time (I encourage them to do so), or can alert me via the dean’s office, but I suspect many, especially if their conditions is relatively mild, do not.


Donald A. Coffin 12.18.11 at 9:00 pm

Alan Blinder (economist) wrote somewhere that he gives only essay exams because “Life is not a multiple choice test,” a point with which I agree. Except that Blinder has graders and I don’t. So in my large intro econ classes, it’s multiple choice tests, but not purely memory based (students get to use on sheet of notes, 8.5″x11″, both sides). Upper level classes, all the work for a grade is done out of class, and I recognize the problem of knowing with certainty whose work I am grading. Oddly, though, I don’t think it’s much of a problem, for a number of reasons that seem reasonably valid to me. It took me a while, though, to write good out-of-class questions, questions where it’s the reasoning that counts, not the ability to look up an answer…


SusanC 12.18.11 at 9:20 pm

I’ve read about half the novels on the list, and I found the identification surprisingly difficult – I’m quite astonished at how many of the quotes wouldn’t be so out of place in one of the other novels. The writting style sometimes helps (and many of the writers on the list have very distinctive prose styles), but even that doesn’t always help.


When I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, I felt it was running against a paradox. A mainstream novel is usually about the characters’ thoughts and motivations, and so writing one is a difficult exercize in what the autism researchers call “theory of mind”[*] If the fictional pretense is that the narrator has an autistic spectrum condition, the real author can end up talking to the presumed reader over the head of fictional narrator. You might compare Dog in the Night-time to books where the author really has an autistic spectrum diagnosis (e.g. Rich Shull, Temple Grandin, etc.)


StevenAttewell 12.19.11 at 12:29 am

24, 25, 30:

Journalists and lawyers take time to diligently research, fact-check, and edit their pieces, or they’re bad at their jobs. Indeed, I’d argue that our current system really undervalues teaching thoroughness and follow-through.

Football players aren’t primarily judged on their ability to lift weights though – at the end of the day, it’s their skills on the field that matter. I have no objection to, for example, weekly quizzes to see if people are learning and integrating the material, but I don’t think they should be used as anything other than training/diagnosis.

“Being able to recall what you know in a hurry, and as far as that goes, being able to fudge, are essential skills in a lot of situations. And various sorts of people are expected to have immediate recall of essential information” – right, but as your statement about oral exams points to, the way that people actually use recall and fudging (which in the end are actually rather secondary skills compared to your ability to comprehend, integrate, research, and express an argument) is in conversation, and our standards about recall in discourse are very different from our standards about writing.

Berube at 29:

Unfortunately, that’s still how we’re doing the M.A exam and 3/4ths of our PhD exams as well at UCSB History – and I’d be really curious to see statistics on trends across academia. We don’t have people write a lit review essay that could turn into an introduction to the dissertation or a publishable article, we don’t have people design a course that they could use in job talks, etc.


peggy 12.19.11 at 1:48 am

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.
As a retired scientist it astounds me that new ideas should be discouraged in a classroom.

In my favorite undergraduate course the materials were in manuscript because it was a draft which upended the stodgy while emphasizing the new experimental methods. In graduate school, the intellectually robust professors shared the fields they were creating while incidentally writing textbooks.

Wouldn’t you enjoy being a Princeton student of Krugman’s as he is trying out his new intro Economics book? Isn’t that what universities are for?

Just as addenda to the topic of exams, in science they are usually short answer. A few lines of calculation or a chemical diagram require 15 minutes of cogitation. Tests of reasoning based on a substantial body of knowledge can be open book and often are.


Aulus Gellius 12.19.11 at 3:32 am

@35: I think this is all encouraged by a sort of cycle of idiotic literary-history theorizing. The way it goes is, someone trying to explain the importance of a favorite author or movement gives a story along the lines of “You see, all literature up until X [my favorite author — this can be, roughly, anyone from Shakespeare to Samuel Beckett] was stupid and boring. Everyone just wrote about one-dimensional characters in stories with insipid morals. Then X invented the idea of interesting literature.” And a student learns this story, and then happens to pick up, say, the Iliad, and finds that it’s actually pretty good. So the student develops a conservative counter-theory: “Literature is actually supposed to be stupid and boring, as all the greats used to know — we all secretly love one-dimensional characters and insipid morals, but X went and started introducing moral ambiguity and character depth, and ruined all the fun.” And someone is convinced, until s/he happens to pick up, say, Harold Pinter, and the cycle begins anew.

@39: My wife has pointed out to me (when I was grumbling about the pointlessness of in-class essay writing) that people working in development in non-profit organizations often do have to write grant applications and such very quickly in advance of approaching deadlines. Not closed-book, obviously. And I’m open to the chicken-and-egg argument: perhaps if we didn’t make everybody do this nonsense in school, we’d have better systems for awarding grants. But there it is.


Meredith 12.19.11 at 6:24 am

Are some of the questions being raised here really about performance, and about different kinds of performance? A football player works out to play well in a given game, and a musician practices in order to perform well in a given concert — even if they’ll never again play football or the cello after they’ve graduated. Students are learning to analyze, to think creatively, to write well, to express themselves orally, and to do all these things in a variety of contexts (including those where they have to work very quickly, even improvise on the spot) in order to perform well in some context or other not just now (a paper, an oral presentation, an exam) but in the future, when many of the skills they are learning “just for a course” really will be needed. Each and every course can’t address the whole range of future performances for which we are hoping to prepare the students in our courses. We can only hope that four years of liberal arts courses, in a well-designed, larger curriculum help most individual students find their own way. (Hence my refusal to dismiss “outcomes assessment,” insofar as it demands that we attend seriously to our larger goals as we construct the outline of those four years; hence also my disdain for any “checkbox” approach to outcomes assessment.)

Back to football players and musicians, and apart from the many ways I actually believe their more obvious goal of performance could and should enrich our ways of thinking about the standard academic arena: the athlete or musician doesn’t just practice for an upcoming performance. The lonely hours of work take each into some intense and lively place, known only to him or her (just as reading and writing take the student). And each is also dedicated to fellows — teammates, fellows in a quartet or chorus or orchestra. I wish students in a course (certainly a small seminar) more often appreciated that they make the course work, and that we their teachers are little different from coaches or conductors.


praisegod barebones 12.19.11 at 10:53 am

‘Never Let Me Go seems too English.’

Can someone let me know how English a book would have to be to be ‘English to the right level’ fpor a course like Michael’s?


tomslee 12.19.11 at 12:18 pm

Just as addenda to the topic of exams, in science they are usually short answer.

True as stated, but with many exceptions. Sussex University ran a “Chemistry by Thesis” undergraduate degree for years, very successfully, for a few strong students each year. After the first year, attendance at courses was optional, and the bulk of the whole degree was assessed from a thesis. Sadly, it had to be cancelled for insurance reasons.


tomslee 12.19.11 at 12:21 pm

A retrospective view of the Susses “Chemistry by Thesis” degree is here.


Michael Bérubé 12.19.11 at 3:08 pm

SusanC @ 38: Thanks for checking the IDs! # 24, for example, is Flowers for Algernon but could have appeared, mutatis mutandis, in almost every other novel. As for Curious Incident and narrative irony (the question of whether Haddon is talking to us over Christopher’s head), a good comparison point is Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark, which has to resort to multiple narrators for exposition because Lou is unaware of important features of the narrative he’s in. Whereas Haddon quite cleverly solves this problem by way of another layer of texts, i.e., the discovery of his mother’s letters.

Peggy @ 40 — yeah, amazing, isn’t it? Hacker and Dreyfus think they’re complaining righteously about the fragmentation of the curriculum, and they’re really complaining that undergraduates are exposed to their professors’ ideas. As for me, my trepidation had to do with whether I could make it all intelligible to undergraduates, since some of it involves a bit of narrative theory and a bit of the history of intellectual disability.

I don’t see Oryx and Crake being about gender equity, but it certainly deals with rape and sex traffic. Of particular interest, this semester, was the line “or there were sex scandals: sex scandals always got the newscasters excited. For a while it was sports coaches and little boys; then there was a wave of adolescent girls locked in garages.” So at least we know what’s coming next.


Henry 12.19.11 at 4:39 pm

Another novel that might be worth looking at would be Paul Park’s _Celestis._ The sections describing the breakdown of an artificially constructed ‘normal’ consciousness are linguistically extraordinary. Park’s sister is profoundly autistic, so these issues come up frequently in his work – e.g. the early sections of _Soldiers of Paradise_, and his short story about autism (from the perspective of the family rather than the autistic person), collected in _If Lions Could Speak._ Daryl Gregory’s short story Second Person, Present Tense is less profound and maybe not quite on target, but would be fun to teach in class, I imagine. As would be Disch’s _Camp Concentration_ if you wanted to draw a contrast with _Flowers for Algernon._


christian_h 12.19.11 at 4:54 pm

Apologies for posting after in a previous thread offending Michael worse than intended, but thanks for the post and many of the comments. I happen to be scheduled to teach History of Math next term, with an enrolment of 80 (go budget cuts!) so I can really use the advice…


mds 12.19.11 at 4:57 pm

I would be more likely to stand up for Atwood against the likes of Birkerts if she didn’t repeatedly agree with Birkerts’ basic take on science fiction, only placing her own works on the ‘capital L’ side of the line. “Yes, yes, it’s about a mad scientist who seeks to destroy the world as we know it, but it sorta sticks to current technology and isn’t written in the style of E.E. Smith, so it doesn’t count.”

Also, from the receiving end, I found the take-home exam a better approach for advanced mathematics courses, as I have encountered few practicing mathematicians who have memorized every lemma, as opposed to knowing how to construct a reasonable proof from an accessible toolbox. I even liked the take-home final exam format for Electromagnetism II, since it’s not like anyone can solve problems from Jackson’s text on the fly anyway. Granted, the professor in question was pretty obviously trying to make his grading easier by assigning an “essay-style” paper, but still. If one’s interest is in valuing critical thinking over fast thinking and rote mastery, it’s the way to go for advanced coursework. Yes, there’s a risk (even in physics and math) that someone else will do the work, but there’s a risk in getting out of bed in the morning, too. Or using a comput[CRASH]


Stephen Frug 12.19.11 at 5:20 pm

Any chance you could post the full syllabus for the class? I’d love to take a look at it.

And how about some more information on the book-in-progress?


Michael Bérubé 12.19.11 at 5:24 pm

No apologies necessary, Christian. Besides, as you may have heard, I’ve gotten out of the whole hippie-punching business and have taken to pepper-spraying students instead. Wave of the future, as Crake says about the ChickieNobs and the wolvogs.

mds, good to see your computer has a “crash” key, just like mine.

And Henry, thanks — these look like great suggestions, just in time for the Molochmas holidays!


Michael Bérubé 12.19.11 at 5:30 pm

Stephen @ 50 — those eight novels (and the NYTMag essay) are the syllabus, basically. As for the book, there’s a full-blown Sneak Preview available in this recently-published volume, chapter 29, “Narrative and Intellectual Disability.” And a shorter, post-it version of the general idea was published in PMLA 120.2 (2005): 568-76. An even shorter, one-sentence teaser can be found in the offhand reference to Don Quixote @ 14….


bianca steele 12.19.11 at 5:57 pm

Michael: By “gender equity” I meant whether there was a requirement for a certain number of readings to be by or about women. This was beginning to be an issue in most places just about the time I graduated in the 1980s.

pgbb: I’m not sure what you’re objecting to. I think the combination, in the novel, of unfamiliar social context and unfamiliar science-fiction context, make it difficult for even a fairly well educated and well read American reader (as I imagine myself to be) to understand the novel. For one thing, the setting is an obviously very posh school of a type that doesn’t have a prominent place in the US. But what do I know, maybe it is the most perfect example imaginable, for classroom purposes, of a novel about humanness.


Stephen Frug 12.19.11 at 6:55 pm

Michael Bérubé @52: Thanks!


Michael Bérubé 12.19.11 at 7:17 pm

Bianca @ 53 — oh, that gender equity. No, not at all — and besides, 6-2 isn’t really equitable. Shelley and Atwood are there because they seemed like perfect bookends.


ragweed 12.19.11 at 10:30 pm

What I find most terrifying is that I recognize all the Tarzan quotes. (It was grade school but I did get up to book 27 or so. . .)


Barbara Piper 12.20.11 at 2:00 pm

I’ve been using this short essay test strategy successfully for more than 30 years, and have always found that it encourages students to learn while preparing the exam essays. Moreover, the good students in my classes write terrific essays, and the weaker students don’t — but they understand very clearly that the shortcomings of their performances are the product of their own lack of preparation, talent, hard work, etc, rather than some trick questions I’ve thrown at them in a final exam. I encourage students who use all possible sources — lecture notes, readings, on-line resources, etc — and it leaves them feeling almost like I’ve allowed them to cheat, but I can then assess how well they’ve pulled everything together and synthesized material from disparate sources.


Mike Otsuka 12.21.11 at 5:02 pm

Restrict students to 140 characters per answer. Like a tweet. Like this comment. A transferable skill.


Mu 12.21.11 at 5:42 pm

I like to make my finals both take home and in class. I took this from Prof. Gopal Sreenivasan, who would give 6 well directed essays questions to take home. I encourage group studying but then when they come in for the exam, they randomly get 3 of the questions that they’ve prepared. This forces them to look over the material for the entire year (or gamble terribly) and I think the ones who do the best group work are forced to discuss with each other the material, getting other’s perspectives on questions. Also, randomizing each exam means I worry less about people looking over other’s shoulders.

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