EXAM PREP FOR E236 STUDIES IN LITERARY TRADITION, CHAPMAN U FALL 2008 (UPDATED 8/24/08)
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DO'S AND DON'TS DURING THE EXAM
You may use your books and written notes (journal entries, lecture notes, blog entries) during all sections of the exam. But keep in mind that having books and notes on hand is no substitute for careful reading and review.
You may use either a bluebook or plain paper for the third or "essay" section of the exam. (But please don't use ragged-edged paper.) Similarly, you can use either pen or pencil. No scantrons -- I will bring in a two-page sheet containing the exam's three sections; for the first two, write your responses directly on the exam.
You may not SHARE books or notes with others or converse with them during the exam. You can certainly use your own books and notes, but not those of others.
You may not use a laptop during the exam. Students should not have unfair access to powerful search features available even without an Internet connection. You must print out any notes you want to use.
You may not do things that distract others. Taking an exam is like being in a library -- one doesn't chomp on bubble gum or chips in a library, and it isn't acceptable during an exam either.
EXAM GOALS AND PREP STRATEGIES: LEARNING BEYOND TESTS, TAKING NOTES
Why are exams worthwhile? Exams are valuable mainly because they encourage an organized study approach and a certain kind of attention to the material. If you've ever tried to learn a foreign language on your own, you know why formal experience that includes drills, writing assignments, exams, and interaction with other people makes a difference. I've studied ancient Greek formally, but in the case of Latin, I'm self-taught. I have a better grasp of Greek because I've studied it formally; Latin remains more opaque to me. Exams aren't worth much as experiences go, but because you want to do well on them, you may approach the material in a way that should help you enjoy subsequent encounters with Milton or Shakespeare, Jane Austen or William Blake.
What's the best way to prepare for an exam? The first thing is to find out what kind it will be, but even more important is not to make "doing well on the exam" the sole purpose of your efforts. Read the texts for what they have to offer -- do your best to understand them and bring your own experience to bear. Write down -- preferably in a running file -- what you like most (or least) about authors, ideas, periods, and styles. Try to figure out why they strike you as they do, to the extent possible. Attending to an author's style, forms, and ideas as well as to period-related concerns ought to complement the genuine interest that makes studying literature worthwhile. It should not become a mechanical exercise that replaces such interest.
What's the best way to take notes? Develop a strategy. The The Cornell System builds reflection into the process, but perhaps your own will work better. Socrates says that a teacher is a midwife who helps others give birth to their own ideas, so experienced instructors offer their ideas as a starting point, a foundation for further thinking -- not as final prescriptions. Strong students learn from others without giving up the right to determine what matters most to them. Above all, I suggest that you take notes particularly on what is unfamiliar to you, on what is new or not immediately comprehensible, and on what seems insightful or worth remembering for its own sake, not just on what is already familiar, most easily comprehensible, or test-likely. Teaching to the test is never my primary purpose, so if you listen only with that objective in mind, you will find my style frustrating. "Not for that do I repent or change," as Milton's Devil says: to be too easily understood is just as much a betrayal of education's purpose as being gleefully incomprehensible. The point of getting an education is to encounter things you don't'' already know but that you find worth the effort of learning.
HOW TO PREPARE FOR THE EXAM'S THREE SECTIONS FROM DAY ONE
There will be three sections to address: identification of substantive passages; a mix-and-match answer section, and, lastly, an essay section. All parts of the exam will be cumulative (they will cover authors from the first week onwards), open book, and open hard-copy notes. Students will also have some choice of response -- there will be at least a few more id passages, mix-and-match choices, and essay questions than need be chosen. Here is a breakdown of their purpose along with advice about how to do well on them:
Section 1: Identification. Identifying author (where relevant) and title for substantive passages. The purpose of this section is to test for simple recall: you just have to know which author wrote the passage and in which assigned reading. Of course, this means you have to be familiar with an authors' stylistic habits and preferred forms (blank verse, heroic couplets, etc.), turns of thought, mannerisms, general orientation or outlook, and other distinguishing features; you must know the main events and characters of a novel or short story, the central subject/s and/or actions of a given poem, the key tenets held and concerns set forth in a given prose piece. I try to choose passages that are neither too-easily identifiable (i.e. that serve up the names of main characters or contain the title) nor lacking in significance with regard to the author or work in question. Examples: if I want to see whether you've read Joyce's A Portrait closely, I might choose a passage of several lines from the fiery sermon that convinces young Steven temporarily to give up his sinful ways. This is an important part of the novel, and the sermon is hard to forget. If I want to check your recall of Hopkins, I might choose high-impact lines that show off some features of that poet's style -- difficult, unusual words, references to theology (Hopkins was a Jesuit priest), and frequent alliteration and internal rhyme. If I want to test your recall of Wordsworth's poetical theory in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, I might set down a passage that contains one of his noteworthy observations about the purpose of poetry and/or about how poetry is created. Wordsworth may write in a flowing eighteenth-century style, but he knows how to drive home a point with a memorable phrase. The bottom line is that while "simple recall" is all that's required for this section, only reading texts with an eye for style and significance will lead to correct responses: "reading for information" or mere scanning without interest won't help much. A semester-long habit of underlining or HIGHLIGHTING KEY PASSAGES will help greatly, as will making concise margin-notes at important points in the texts.
Section 2: Mix-and-Match. Matching key phrases and ideas (sometimes in brief quotation form) in one column with corresponding descriptions of their significance in another column. The purpose of this section is to test for conceptual recall/recognition: can you match a phrase encapsulating some characteristic attitude or idea with the appropriate author and text as described in the other column? As an example, with reference to Matthew Arnold's melancholy poetry, I might write in a line of Column A, "like the folds of a bright girdle furled," and in one of Column B's lines, "how an Arnold speaker describes Europe's old Christian faith." If you've read "Dover Beach" and have noted the speaker's deeply felt loss of religious certainty, you won't find it hard to connect the quotation with the description. Again, if I were to write in a line of Column A, "to burn with that hard, gemlike flame" and in a line of Column B, "Pater describes this as the aim of a successful life," a student who has reflected on that author's praise for a life filled with high-intensity encounters with art will respond correctly. So the relevant, completed part of the answer table would look like this:
|1. C. "like the folds of a bright girdle furled"||A. Pater describes this as the aim of a successful life|
|2. D. "some other phrase here"||B. some other description here|
|3. A. "to burn with that hard, gemlike flame"||C. how an Arnold speaker describes Europe's old Christian faith|
|4. B. "some other phrase here"||D. some other description here|
In a course on earlier British literature, I might write in Column A, "What though the field be lost?" in the expectation that a careful reader of Milton's Paradise Lost would recognize this quotation's harmony with Column B's "Satan's specious logic in Paradise Lost leads him to say such things." Satan is always vainly supposing that God is a limited being who can be defeated on a battlefield, or frustrated by wiles.
Section 3: Essay/s. Writing (as specified) either one full essay or two short essays of perhaps three full paragraphs each. The purpose of this section is to test your degree of engagement with the assigned texts and your ability to make insightful, appropriate connections among them. Topics may be either single-author or comparative, depending on the question. Half of the exam grade (or more, as specified) comes from your performance on the third section, so if you find that you aren't getting through the first two parts fast enough, come back to them after you've done the third part to your satisfaction. To give you an example of the kind of questions I might ask, here is one from a previous course: "Wilde's 'The Decay of Lying' is a protest against traditional mimetic criticism and artistic realism, and a testament to the power of art to improve the human condition. Assess the extent to which Wilde's claims link him to at least one other predecessor critic of culture and/or the arts (Carlyle, Mill, Ruskin, Arnold, or Pater)."
Essay Tips: Even in a brief essay, include specific references to the texts you cover -- quotations and paraphrases where that would be appropriate. Don't resort to vague "truisms" or appreciative statements like "Virgil's Aeneid is a timeless work of art." You don't have to demonstrate exhaustive knowledge; the aim is to show that you can explore the significance of the specific parts of the texts you discuss (which may involve some explanation of how those parts relate to the author's broader themes and concerns) and that you can make appropriate connections between one author's ideas and styles and those of another. Finally, write as simply and clearly as possible. Give any teacher a stack of exams, and the better grades will go to the ones that offer good content and sound style. A relatively brief, well-structured and well-proofread response that addresses the text's specifics is better than one that seems like a laundry list of unconnected ideas. Do grammar and style matter? Of course they do. It would be misleading to suggest otherwise. But it should help to know that students often write their best when they are just trying to make good sense, as during an exam, rather than when they are trying to write "academese." Good academic writing, in fact, is like other kinds of writing: as clear and simple as the matter will bear.