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Writing in Smoke

1643fig1Forgive my discontent—I’ve been grading for seven days straight and am fighting an overwhelming sense of irrelevancy that started with one simple event.

You see, the word “want” has a double meaning. As a verb it’s “to desire.” As a noun—particularly in nineteenth century texts—it means “a lack.” So, when Emerson says, “The reliance on property… is the want of self-reliance,” it’s clear he intends to communicate property reduces our self-reliance. He goes on to explain that we depend upon the things we have instead of upon ourselves. Having property, we need not rely on our own skills, talents, and acumen.

You see the problem of mistaking one meaning of “want” for the other. If you think “want” is a way to say “desire” (the noun), you might think Emerson favored property, that the desire for property is a desire for self-reliance.

I offered just this explanation to a class, and they nodded with understanding. They heard me. Their comprehension of the paragraph broadened, and a student explained how it made sense, how this notion fit with all of Emerson’s ideas. A few wrote it down, but a very few. After all, they understood, and the moment would be memorable.

Later I gave the class, in advance, passages that might appear on a quiz. One of those was the passage above. On the quiz I asked, “What does ‘want of self-reliance’ mean?”

Over three-quarters answered “a desire for self-reliance.”

It’s likely my state of mind assigns too much meaning to their error, and it’s an ugly thing to shame students. And I’m ashamed I’m doing it. I like these students, a lot. Yet, no frustration is greater than feeling inaudible. Between papers I’ve formed cynical theories for why they would miss this question. I have 15:

1. Anything significant appears in multiple formats, different media, and in duplicated settings, and I only explained the confusion between “want” and “desire” a couple of times.

2. Why write anything down you think you’ll remember? Why remember anything you can find elsewhere? Is memory of obscure information even important?

3. These days, everything is redundant, or—if it isn’t—anything that isn’t redundant isn’t important.

4. As consumers we choose products we want and need. We know what’s important.

5. Data that takes more than three seconds to load requires patience, and I take so much longer.

6. The more we seek and praise ease and efficiency in learning, the harder real learning seems.

7. Pleasing—even when it’s insincere—is the way to go. Easier to appear than to be.

8. Text and uninterrupted voice are linear, and words travel like boxcars on rails you can’t get off. I love to ride the rails but my tastes are peculiar.

9. Electronic media is bifurcation, every track splitting into two new lines every moment.

10. Until Emerson includes sound, images, movement, and links, his work will seem to come from another dimension where sound, images, movement, or links don’t exist.

11. If you can’t guess what’s inside frogs, you have to dissect one. Explaining Emerson is dissecting a frog. The frog rarely survives.

12. Cursors slide and I want students to bear down. Their pens and pencils barely graze paper and a trillion miles of curlicues knot with themselves. It’s all one Jackson Pollock, lovely but inscrutable.

13. Information passes, a parade barely visible beyond the screens interposing between us and the world.

14. The spotlight I stand in isn’t any more hot or cool than any other illuminated space vying for attention.

15. You don’t have to understand Emerson or like him to fulfill his warning that property–electronic property–might own us.

None of these explanations help at all. I’m not a crowing Jeremiah. Quite the contrary, in my imagination I hear colleagues accuse me of ossification, of denial, of being a Luddite, of not adapting to the material I’m given, of not being resourceful or inventive enough, of teaching material inappropriate to the grade level, of having a bad attitude, of teaching outdated, outmoded, and irrelevant texts, of taking tacks no longer viable, of removing myself from the world instead of immersing myself in it, of not following where the puck is going, of mistaking different for worse, of not being student-centered, of undervaluing new ways of learning, of focusing too narrowly on deficits instead of assets, of falling hopelessly behind.

Over the last week or so I’ve examined and accepted all these personal faults. I feel them… and acutely too. I know how strident I sound, and I’m sorry for it. But I can’t help myself. I also fear the future. As a teacher, it’s my job to pass on skills I’ve learned to value as part of my own self-reliance.

Or do I have that wrong too?

I guess I’m ready for a break.

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Another Final

Every year about this time, I sit down to write final examinations and wish I could create another sort of exam altogether. I like to think the finals I give are a reasonable test of students’ knowledge, understanding, and skill, but they seldom reveal whether the literature reached students in any personally meaningful way. I seldom know if what I teach is relevant or important. Even impressive responses lack independent spirit and hint at obligation rather than sincerity.

Students want to please me, seldom themselves. They might say that I shouldn’t expect more, that asking them to prove themselves—and according to my standards—puts them in survival mode. The experience can’t be about self-expression, they might say, because what student would ever, of his or her own volition, take a final exam?

Still I daydream. Instead of writing the exams I need to, I devise alternatives. It happens every year. I want a truer (and more interesting) measure of what they’ve learned.

When I was in college, a myth circulated that a Biology teacher gave a one question final, “Why life?” Naturally, the story ended with one bold student answering “Why not?” and receiving an “A,” but I would never be satisfied with an answer so clever… or elusive. I like the single, simple question idea, but I want to see their minds truly at work.

So here is my dream Final:

Literature Final Examination: December 13, 2011

GENERAL INSTRUCTIONS:

You have two hours to work and only one question to answer, so, before you begin, take a moment to reflect on the function of this examination. As this exam is an instrument I use to assess your mastery of the literature you’ve encountered and your skill as a writer, I hope to see:

  • Precise and thorough knowledge of these novels, stories, poems, and other works
  • Attention to insights gleaned through our discussions and activities
  • Comprehensive understanding of the works’ implications and their connections to one another (and, if relevant, the aims and techniques of literature in general)
  • Focused choices about the range and domain of your pursuit
  • Resourceful and relevant use of detail to illustrate observations, interpretations, arguments, and epiphanies
  • Sensible and understandable reasoning expressed in planning and organization
  • Concise, accurate, and deft prose
  • Legible handwriting

None of what’s listed above should be a surprise to you—of course you want to show yourself to your greatest advantage.

More than any of that, however, I want to know you’ve grown and that studying this literature has enhanced your capacity to think, to express yourself, and to understand the important issues and ideas these works raise. I need, in other words, to see a sincere effort to grapple with questions and reach answers satisfying to you and a reader.

You will receive no clarification beyond these instructions, so please don’t ask about length, form, how many works you should cite, or any other choice rightfully belonging to you.

Choose ONE (wisely):

1. If the literature we studied this semester were all that remained of our civilization, what might future archeologists say of us?

2. Address an irreconcilable conflict between two of the authors we’ve encountered and come to terms with it yourself—who is right, and how do you know?

3. Explain something you discovered about yourself as you studied this literature this semester.

4. What is the most important truth about human nature you’ve learned this semester?

5. It’s the morning after you hosted a dinner party for some of the authors and/or characters you met this semester.

6. What do you see as dispensable and indispensable in what we read this semester, and what key quality separates them?

7. Imagine one of the authors we studied sitting in the desk beside you. How do you think he or she would regard the novels, stories, poems, and other works we encountered?

8. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and this semester you’ve been the beholder. Offer a definition of beauty based on what you’ve seen.

9. Why do you study literature?

10. Devise and answer a question of your own commensurate with those above.

Some notes on assessing student’s responses: I distrust grades’ emphasis on extrinsic motivation. Many students behave dishonestly on exams because they fear  jeopardizing their mark. I’d want to grade this exam pass-fail, hoping to determine, on the most basic level, whether a student deserves credit. A “pass” would mean something though, and I would not grant them universally. Ideally, I would invite students who failed to return the next day until they passed. That’s crazy, I know.

If I had to grade it, I’d write only final comments suggesting skills that seem strong and weak in the response. If a student protested that the exam was not his or her best work, I’d let the student retake the exam. Students could retake it three times or until they attained grades they could be happy about, whichever came first.

In either case, I’d reserve the right to stop reading the moment I was satisfied or dissatisfied with a student’s response… unless, of course, something compelled me to continue.

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The Final Final

Next week my school holds final examinations. I used to be a big believer in finals, but my students regard them—nearly universally—with disgust. I don’t blame them. At their age, I may have felt as persecuted. However, their hatred of exams often gets in the way of their performing well on them. They have trouble approaching challenges with spirit and determination when they feel so put upon. Their responses are sometimes perfunctory, more indicative of exhaustive diligence than curiosity or sincere interest. And, to me, that’s a shame. Call me a foolish idealist, but I don’t think exams HAVE to be horrible. Like most things in school, they are what we make them.

This morning, the anticipation of giving (and grading) exams brought out something impish in me. I started thinking about the exam I’d like to give them, one that would challenge and exercise their beliefs about education and why they are in school at all.

Then I decided to write that exam. Here it is:

Literature Final Examination: May 26, 2009

GENERAL INSTRUCTIONS

  1. You will have no time limit on this exam—take as much time as you think is necessary to complete it to your satisfaction. As far as I’m concerned, you have the rest of your life if you’d like.
  2. No question on this test has a correct answer. I’ll assess the thoughtfulness of your responses, including (but hardly limited to) their focus, substance, and good sense. Answers offering new thinking and insight will receive the highest scores. Ones that don’t attempt these attributes won’t score well at all.
  3. Read the instructions for each section carefully and complete the tasks required. If at some point during this examination, however, you see alternate approaches or alternate requirements that are just as challenging—perhaps more interesting to you—amend or modify this test. Explain your changes thoroughly. Bear in mind that your changes will also be assessed.

I. True-False (20%)—Indicate whether each of the following statements is true or false by placing a T or F in the space provided. You will receive two points for each response evident in your behavior, as determined by my observation all year. You may receive partial credit.

_____1. The study of literature is a valuable aspect of education.

_____2. Everyone has some curiosity.

_____3. If learning results, any motive for studying is acceptable.

_____4. All learning depends on having an effective teacher.

_____5. Empathy is the most important trait of a careful reader.

_____6. All forms of writing make similar demands of a writer.

_____7. Exposing the intentions and reasoning of an author is the only aim of studying literature.

_____8. No one work will please or displease all readers.

_____9. The authority of an author rests more with the reader than with the writer.

_____10. Schooling is not, ultimately, for students but for some broader social purpose.

II. Short Essay (40%)—Choose two of the statements in section I (one true and one false) and, for each, write a short essay that justifies and explains your answer. Where relevant and effective, include specific references to the material we studied this year and your personal experience in this class. Each answer is twenty points and will receive some suitable percentage of that total based on its clarity, honesty, and sincerity.

III. Personal Response (15%)—Find a way to impart a moment you learned something important in this class. An essay is acceptable, but you are certainly not limited to that means of communication. You will find paper, paints, markers, and a mini-keyboard under your desk. Whatever your choice, however, be sure your work is focused, vivid, and moving in some way. You will receive up to ten points for your response, and another five points will be set aside for how well you matched your message and your means of expressing it.

IV. Final Essay (25%)—Write a fully developed essay in reply to ONE of the prompts below. Forget everything you’ve been taught or told about proper essay form. Your work will be assessed by how illuminating and interesting it is, period.

1. Scholars and critics revere nearly all the literature we’ve encountered this year. Choose a work you did NOT appreciate and account for your reaction to it. Why didn’t it reach you and where did the problem lie, with you or with the work itself?

2. Discuss a classmate whose responses to literature you particularly admire. What is it about his or her ideas and interpretations that strike you as exciting and interesting? What have you learned about reading—and studying literature—from this classmate?

3. Write an essay that reveals something important your teacher doesn’t know. This “something important” can take many forms—it could be vital information, a misunderstanding of a text, or something more personal to yourself—just be specific and forthright and explain why that deficit is significant.

4. Out of all the literature we’ve read this year, what is the one line, passage, image, etc. you think you will remember forever? Explore the meaning, implication, consequence, and worth of your choice and account for its effect on you. What in the combination of this item, this year, and your personal evolution makes it so significant?

I really rather doubt this examination would make any of my students feel better about taking finals, but I might learn more about them than I do on my real final exams.

And I feel better having gotten it out of my system!

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