Finals bad! Hulk smash!

Briefly, I will note that I’ve updated the Parker reading schedule here. There is just one chapter up for grabs, though I encourage any of our contributors to feel free to post at any point during the reading alongside the scheduled posts.

As I think about things coming up in December, I realize I have to give a final exam to my British Literature Survey students. I am dreading both writing the exam and grading it, as both will make me come face-to-face with the problem of what different groups of students are actually learning from my class.

This is, as I’ve mentioned before, my first class whose focus is on absorbing a body of literature, as opposed to learning about writing or analytical methodologies. (My evaluator seemed to think I had turned my Brit Lit Survey into a methodology course, which I think was a compliment.) At the end of the semester, I not only need evidence that my students are able to analyze poems and do a lit-crit research paper on a novel, but I also require proof that they, like, read the stuff on the syllabus. I can’t pass someone who can’t name some Romantic poets.

In the past, when I’ve been told to give a final exam, if my students seemed to be keeping up just fine with the material during the daily writing, I’ve followed the example of one of my favorite undergraduate professors and cancelled the final, asking them all instead to read a shortish novel of my choice and to lead a discussion during the allotted final hours. I would grade them on their ability to focus on passages, come up with interesting interpretations, and respond to one another’s ideas. Usually, I bring a nice red velvet cake and some nut brittle. It’s a pleasant way to end a semester, and everyone goes home feeling good about themselves.

But this semester, there have been too many students, too many readings, and too many absences for me to keep up with who is doing the reading. Every day, when they come into class, I ask them difficult analytical questions as a little seven-minute writing prompt. When I get their responses, it is easy to tell who the best students are because they have clearly read the material to a depth that allows for this level of thought. The rest of the responses I get are usually so off-base that I simply cannot tell whether they’ve not done the reading, or whether they have, but need help knowing what it means. There is a level of difficulty that allows the best students to shine, but levels out the rest of the students to the point of unevaluability.

So in order to give some kind of credit for just having followed along at a basic level, I have to give a quizzy final. Of course I’d rather do an analytical thing where I ask for differences between Renaissance and Augustan aesthetics, but not all of my students are really able to follow along at that level. Some of my students will feel cheated because sitting around memorizing the syllabus isn’t going to help them, and the students who missed a lot of classes will certainly fail, since they’ve missed so much lecture and discussion content. On the other hand, if I give a quizzy “who/what/when” final, the better students in the class, who are keeping up marvelously with the sense of the passage of time and the changes in prose and poetry, may not remember what the titles of the poems we read are, and they will wonder what all that heavy-duty talk about aesthetics and ethics was about.

Is it possible to balance the two? Who here has written final exams for lit surveys before? What did you do? What worked? What didn’t?

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