This time of year, assessment fatigue creeps up on me. I know the immense responsibility of responding to student work, but I grow tired of judging the merit of what they produce. Hours of reading essays, tests, and rewrites improves my attention to students’ writing and thinking—what’s missing, confusing, promising, what’s singing and what’s stammering, what’s reaching out to readers and what’s just fulfilling the assignment. However, the final act—writing A, B, C, (or worse) and deciding what a student’s effort deserves—becomes painful. I’d rather skip it.
In a creative writing course last year, I experimented with assessing the volume and quality of student effort instead of judging the merit of what they produced. To pass the course, students had to complete major writing projects conscientiously, through multiple drafts and workshops. But they could raise their grade from there by choosing to write smaller, optional assignments. I reserved the right at the end of the semester to lower or raise their final average by up to five points if they exceeded or disappointed expectations, but few fell short. For the most part, students worked hard to reach the grade they desired. And all I had to do was make challenging and inspiring assignments, monitor what students had completed, and assess the quality of their effort. While I responded to all their work thoughtfully with the same volume of comments I always do, I did not put a letter on any assignment all semester.
As exams approach, I’ve been wondering, would it be possible to devise a “contract exam”? So, though I should have been writing my real exams, I’ve written a contract exam instead. I know it’s not realistic—I know it would never work, and I confess to indulging a little wish fulfillment in creating it. I wrote this exam for fun and think of it as a sort of fantasy of what an exam might be…
SEMESTER EXAMINATION: Literature Class
Before you begin, please review these general directions:
- By fulfilling the tasks on this examination, you will gather points towards 100.
- This exam is unlimited—you may spend as much time on it as you like and respond to as many questions as you like.
- However, you should spend no more time on it than you like—writing that is perfunctory, desultory, spiritless, disengaged, or generally obligatory is unlikely to receive points.
- Please choose tasks that inspire you. Doing everything on this exam—the shotgun approach—is counterproductive and will not yield success.
Section I: Must (75%)—In order to pass this exam, you must complete THREE of the following tasks connected to critical moments in the works you have read. As always, your writing will be assessed for its focus, organization, and substance. However, those comments will be for your personal growth as a writer only. It is up to you to decide what is the proper length, form, and content of your responses. You will receive full points if you complete what you are being asked to do in a credible fashion.
For THREE different literary works, write about a moment when…
- a main character recognizes something important about him or herself
- the author reveals a characteristic approach or technique
- a secondary element (minor character, setting, motif, etc.) supports a major theme
- a work establishes a question or issue it means to address but not answer
- the resolution of tension or contradiction becomes clear
Section II: Might (30%)—All of the six point tasks below are optional. Please proceed only if a task inspires specific thoughts or reactions. You will receive points if your responses add to a reader’s understanding of the work in question. As in the first section, commentary on your ideas and your expression of them will be a means of developing your writing skills.
- Take a moment in a work in from one genre and convert it to another—turn a poem’s line into a scene from a short story, make a scene in a story into a poem, etc.
- Speak in the voice of one of the writers we’ve studied and talk about what you are trying to accomplish in one of your works.
- Imagine a director has chosen to adapt one of the works we’ve encountered—write a letter advising him or her of the particular challenges the work presents.
- Discuss one personal connection you made with one of the works we’ve read—when did you say “I really understand what that’s about”?
- Choose the writer we’ve encountered who seems to come closest to your own view of what writing should be and do and discuss why.
- Create a conversation between characters in separate works we’ve read. What might they have to say to one another if they knew each knew both stories?
- Recommend one of the works we’ve encountered to a friend—what is it exactly that makes it worth reading… perhaps because it offers something this particular friend?
- Describe a main character during a private moment in which he or she says nothing. Communicate your understanding of this character within this constraint.
- Explain how an absence in one of the works we’ve encountered helps establish what the author hoped to communicate.
- Use a statement from one of the works we encountered and write a two minute radio piece expressing why that statement has been memorable and meaningful to you.
- Address the work that gave you the most difficulty and account for why.
- Devise a task along the lines of the ones above—but not covered in any of them—and respond to it.
Section III: Recovery Points—You may receive points to compensate for losses in the first two sections by writing a letter about your experience reading literature in this class. All decisions about the length, form, content, and direction of this letter are your own—please think about what you want to say.
When you have completed your work, please check it over to assure that you have presented yourself in the best possible light. See you next semester.
Like I said, it would NEVER work.