In Which We Consider the Possibility That I Have Wasted the Last Four Months of My Life …

I’ve just finished correcting the final exams for my college-level American Literature survey course.

Exactly 100% of my students failed.

OK, so what that tells me is that the exam was too difficult for them, and there’s nothing to do but calculate a generous curve. I want my students to work hard, but I have no interest in flunking the entire room.

The only trouble is, I keep reading the exam over and over, and I cannot for the life of me figure out why these aren’t questions that college students should be able to answer correctly after a 16-week introduction to American lit (or, at least, answer 70% of them correctly for a passing grade).

I can’t quite understand why someone who had been physically conscious for the last 16 weeks would think that Emily Dickinson wrote “Howl” or would confuse Edith Wharton’s short story “Xingu” with Langston Hughes’ poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” (Perhaps there should be pity points for remembering that rivers were involved in both, kind of?)

For that matter, I don’t understand how someone could read lines like “We ain’t got no cats heah, ’bout dis hotel. Bill he don’t like ’em. He can’t stan’ a cat no way. Ef he was to ketch one he’d slam it outen de winder in a minute,” and think they must have been written by Kate Chopin. (It’s Mark Twain, by the way, from an odd and interesting “local color” piece called “Sociable Jimmy.”)

I don’t get how a student could fail to recall that, of all the writers we studied, Walt Whitman is the one most closely associated with the Civil War (especially after I assigned the excerpts from Specimen Days in which Whitman specifically talks about the war). No, let me amend — the only writer we read who was associated with the Civil War.

Can anyone with a high school education, whether he took my course or not, encounter the lines

“And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?”

and not recognize Eliot and the existential laments of Prufrock?

The question is rhetorical of course. In my hands I have the proof that anyone can. Not one of my students could identify the quote — neither the author nor the title.

Sure, one could argue that I must be a lousy teacher if my students did so poorly. One could, except all that was required to pass the exam was to have reviewed the works that were to be covered on the final — only about one half of what we actually read — and to have retained a relatively superficial level of familiarity with them (author, title, main characters, and a v-e-r-y vague memory of plot and style). One could, except that, a month ago, I handed out a list of the specific works that would appear on the exam, thinking that, in so doing, I was making it easier for them to know what to study. A student armed with that list, his textbook and handouts, and an IQ above freezing — but who had never attended a single class — should still have passed the final.

So lessee … 70% of one-half is … umm … I knew I should have paid more attention in math … yep, it comes to 35%. So studying and being able to have an intelligent thought about just over one-third of what we covered this semester would have earned a passing grade on the final exam.

I would gladly entertain any reasonable argument regarding why that was too much to ask.

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Posted on 2 May 2012, in English Scorned, Betrayed, and Abused, Write ... che ti passa. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. My heart bleeds for you. I had a student once, when I was teaching a course called Great Issues in Political Thought, who complained that Plato had stolen most of his ideas from George Orwell, so he shouldn’t have been made to study him. The flattening out of time was so sudden I almost fell off the edge.

  2. Flavia Vendittelli

    It wasn’t, of course. I can only think that because of all these new technologies many kids don’t know how to study anymore, they just want to google something and find an easy answer (most of the time, the wrong one because they cannot even choose wisely). They will regret it later on and remember you with shame. I wish I’d had a teacher like you, I would have known much more than I do now and found it easier to learn. Thank you for trying and not giving up.

  3. I battle with these issues 5 days a week. Brains must have changed during the 25+ years I’ve been teaching. Mine has. How can I find a way to teach something? Supposing teaching is impossible, how can I create a learning environment for my students, and tests that actually reflect that learning environment?
    The answer my friend is blowing in the wind (so far). The quote is from a) Bob Dylan; b) Dylan Thomas; c) Cristina Rossetti; d) me. No, my students wouldn’t get the correct answer…

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