Exam Doozies and Doubts

What do academics do wrong?

by Warren Goldstein (U Hartford)

The term’s over, thank God, and I’ve finished plowing through my U.S.-sports-history exams, but I can’t forget reading: “Femininity on the other hand was something that girls created after masculinity.” What? Incredulous when I came across that, at Hour 3, with a dozen booklets to go, I needed to vent. I e-mailed an old friend who teaches a similar course. He wrote back immediately, “What the … . Why do we bother?”

His question, however flippant, brought me up short. It’s a good one, even beyond the obvious answers: We have tenure; we’re getting a little long in the tooth to start another career; we can’t live on book sales alone; and as another friend, my main undergraduate mentor, Leo Ribuffo of George Washington University, wrote me, “Being a professor is one of the last pleasant jobs in America with a good salary per hour of work and considerable (though shrinking) autonomy.”

But I want more than a pleasant job with a good salary. So does Leo, and so do most of you reading this. I want to make a difference in my students’ lives, and by extension, in the lives of those they may influence. Who does not treasure the letters we receive from time to time from former students?

There’s more. I went into this business partly because I believed that Americans would create a more just, equitable, and peaceful society if they knew more history and could see the way their predecessors struggled against enormous odds to do just that. I want my students to see how otherwise ordinary folks took up impossible challenges and changed their world.

But every term the moment comes. There are stacks of bluebooks on your desk—or dozens of papers and take-home exams cluttering up your mailbox—and it’s time.

Time to trudge through the pile, mark them, do the math for the entire term, assign final grades to the students with whom you’ve been sharing three, four, five hours a week for the past 14 or 15 weeks.

If the classes were small enough—mine were—you learned their names. If students were your advisees, you helped them choose courses, consider the next few terms, or think about life after college. For seniors, you wrote letters of recommendation and celebrated or commiserated with them as they did or did not get into graduate school, law school, the police academy, med school, the Peace Corps. You worked with them on major projects and struggled over how much time you should give a second draft that wasn’t going to get any better.

Now, with a sinking heart, you pick up the exam from the student who needs a B or his GPA won’t reach 2.0 in the major, and therefore he will not graduate. Do you want to see him in the fall? Do your colleagues?

But what is most dispiriting is this: As we enter the Slough of Despond that is end-of term grading, we resemble John Bunyan’s character Christian, sinking in the bog of his own sins. In grading, we face our own failures.

We flail about, scrawling huge “NO!”s—getting angrier by the minute because we look in the mirror, and after a semester of trying to inculcate knowledge and advance skills, it turns out we haven’t made much difference. Because we care about what goes on in the classroom, that realization hurts.

You see, I even know what the young man who wrote the offending sentence was trying to say: that versions of masculinity dominated the sports world for most of American history, and that when women wanted their own sporting lives, they had to create a new kind of femininity, one that could embrace public physical activity as well as domesticity. If I had been willing to give my student weekly writing assignments (instead of the three in the course), meet with him frequently, push him to more precision, he might have written a better exam. But I’d taught him previously, felt I knew what he was capable of, and didn’t have the energy.

OK, I might have had it, but I was trying to finish a project with a deadline—I’m just about always trying to finish some kind of project on a deadline. I had failed my student. I knew it intellectually, but I was still protecting myself emotionally. I wanted a quick laugh to let me off the hook. So I posted my student’s line (anonymously, of course) on Facebook.

Not that I was alone in my failure. My student had never asked for help and seemed content with his mediocre grades. This was his 12th (!!) course in our department; because it’s small, nearly all of us had taught him. We had all failed him.

We tell ourselves constantly that most of our students simply aren’t prepared to do college-level work; if only high schools would teach reading and writing skills, we could just teach history, or English, or sociology. But when I worked on a teaching grant in Danbury, Conn., I learned that high-school teachers feel hamstrung by the poor preparation of their ninth graders. In turn, middle-school social-studies teachers said, “We need elementary school to get them ready for us.” I haven’t talked to first-grade teachers, but I have a feeling I know what they’d say. All of us in education have become expert at passing the buck.

What’s wrong with blowing off a little steam, putting a few exam doozies on Facebook? Just this, courtesy of my friend Lennard Davis at the University of Illinois at Chicago: “The danger is laughing at the students up one’s sleeve or blaming them for one’s own shortcomings.” Ouch.

We all know that our students’ preparation has declined over the past 20 years. That doesn’t let us off the hook. We are still in the business of teaching, not stand-up, which means we’re all—students and faculty—in this together.

If we care about how students perform on exams, we ought to be teaching them how to write exams—instead of assuming that by virtue of being in college, they know. Instead of ridiculing our failures, we need to look deep into that mirror and see what we can learn from those failures. There might even be some surprises.

I went back through my exams. And it turns out that there were just as many real gems as “gems.”

“It is interesting that throughout history,” one young man began an essay, “if a man is involved in sports somehow he is seen as masculine but if he is not interested in sports people will question his sexuality. However if a woman is interested in sports or plays a sport her sexuality is questioned but if she is not she is seen to be feminine and ‘normal.'” Bingo!

He had just introduced a first-rate essay on the history of gender roles in sports.

I’d like to think I had something to do with that. Maybe I’ll post that line on Facebook.

Warren Goldstein is a professor of history and chair of the department at the University of Hartford.

This article was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 18, 2012. 

Author: Brooke Allen

A social entrepreneur and retired Wall Street executive.

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