Professor, What Do You Want on the Exam?

(image by Flickr/CC user o5com)

You come to me as if I could offer you a recipe or a secret formula for success. I can’t. I see from the expression on your face that you doubt me; you believe that I could indeed offer you a template and that I’m choosing not to. You think I have an ideal essay written in my head and that your job is to get as close to that ideal as you can.

You’re wrong. There is no phantom blue book in my imagination with all the best essays up against which yours will be judged.

Look, If I were only trying to test whether you know the names of the characters or understood the plots of the books, or even whether you could recite back to me the key points we discussed in class, I would make the test much easier on myself. I’d give you short-answer questions, or better yet, multiple choice. I’d come up with witty and flippant one-liners, clearly incorrect, to indicate in some postmodern metatextual way that I was hip enough not to take this whole business of assessment seriously.

But you’ll notice I teach modern literature, not postmodern literature, and that we focus on textual issues rather than metatextual issues. And although we often have humorous exchanges in class, even those exchanges are grounded in what we’re reading. You know from the ferocity of my various policies—that you show up on time, that you always do the reading, that you participate in class discussions, that even in a class of 35, you learn each other’s name in order to facilitate that discussion, and that when you make a comment you have a textual reference to back up your observation–that I do not consider myself (or you) too cool for school.

What to avoid? That’s easier to explain. Don’t make grand sweeping statements, but instead focus on answering the specific question in meaningful detail. Trying to fit some second-hand, pompous, ill-conceived, pretentious rhetoric into the scope of a narrow, precisely worded question would be like trying to stuff a walrus into a test-tube. Don’t just begin rambling, blathering onto the screen until you hope to find an argument and then consider yourself as having finished the task successfully because you’ve reached a certain number of words.

And if you keep having to check how many words you’ve written only to find the total along the lines of 38, 71, and 112 after the space of several hours, please stop what you’re doing. If you know what you’re talking about, the words should come to you more freely than that. And for the love of God, please spell the names of the author, the main characters, and the titles of the book correctly. Trust me, I know all too well, that Citizen Kane, with a “K,” can be instantly altered to Cane with a “C,” and that it was only a trifling error. I’m even willing to overlook one or two of those if the rest of what you’ve accomplished impresses me. That’s one of the rewards for over-all competence: being given the benefit of the doubt for slip-ups.

It’s true that sometimes I forget you want practical pieces of information. You want to know how long your answer should be. Part of me wants to say it should be as long as you think it should be, but I also know that that’s unreasonable. So I’ll give you an entirely arbitrary but not misleading response: 750-1250 words are fine for an exam where you’re expected to write two or three short essays. More than 2500 words for this kind of exam is rather long, but I will read anything you write. Please, however, don’t think you’ll do better simply by writing more. It’s not as if I have nothing else to do and think “Ooh, Jenny must be smart because she wrote 19,000 words on this topic.” I will think Jenny needs to work on making her points more succinctly and maybe doing some volunteer work.

Oh, that wasn’t exactly what you wanted to know? Okay, 500 words are the minimum bid; that’s the floor. Naturally this isn’t always the case. Some students can write genuinely brilliant answers with far fewer words. They can write in four or five short, sharp paragraphs what others would take pages and pages to explain. But those would have to be exceptional.

They would have to be like the (no doubt apocryphal) undergraduate at Cambridge who earned a starred First on his philosophy tripos when faced with the question, “What is courage?”

According to the various mythological accounts, the young man simply wrote, “This is,” and left the building.

Dear Student, I’d advise you to enjoy that story but not to repeat it.

And Dear Student, remember this one thing: You’re an upper-division student at a flagship university, and I refuse to treat you with less respect or with lower expectations than I was treated with when I was a student. You can choose to rise to the occasion to this exam and the reason I’m asking you to write analytical essays addressing important topics is because I assume that you’ll be able to come up with something original, specific, detailed—and maybe even intriguing. I always hope for intriguing; my hope that you will be intriguing without being eccentric is probably as close as I can get to offering you a magic blueprint.

Good luck.



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