it's finals week. i proctored the exam for my class this afternoon. five short answer identification & explication questions and two essays in two hours. 25 students writing fast and furious.
i like writing and giving a final. finding passages to use for identification/explication questions is like a puzzle. they have to be representative and significant, but also a little obscure--not something we've talked about explicitly in class, but still something that my students can recognize and explicate. and timed essay prompts are difficult to write. they have to strike the perfect balance between generality and specificity, giving the students enough direction that they don't flounder but enough rope that they can either explore fascinating ideas of their own (rather than try to regurgitate to me what they think i think) or hang themselves with their lack of preparation.
sometimes i feel bad for my students. as i walk around the room, i see the signs of stress on their faces. and, looking over their shoulders, i see which ones got caught in the snares of the identification passages--snares usually set by their own laziness or lack of attention to detail, but it forces me to admit to choosing passages with an eye for some slight possibilities for confusion. and i wince inside, because it seems like maybe i was unfair in the passages i chose.
but that always passes. because another part of me relishes their torture. two hours in which they have to pay the piper for all of those half-assed response papers and the stone-faced silence in class and the refusal to do the hard work of revision. the Machiavelli in me rubs my hands and grins gleefully at my students’ fear of a looming final, their strain under the burden of Too Much to Know.
in reality neither of those tendencies wins out in the end. i know that my exams are fair and that the students who have taken the time to do their work will be just fine. for them, the final is an opportunity to demonstrate their merit. because the thing about a final is that it's really a trial by ordeal--a modern day version of proving virtue by combat. the ones who deserve to pass, do. the ones who don’t, don’t. and, just as with medieval trials by combat, there will be a few who are guilty as sin--who read half of each novel, if that; who only made a half-hearted attempt at writing anything; who don’t deserve to pass based on true merit at all--but who will try to find a way to pass anyway.
honestly, if they’re clever enough to find a way to pass without having done as much work as they should have, i’m okay with that. because now that my students' final is out of the way, i get to look forward to my own ordeal. and trust me--while my success will be in part due to merit, it will also be in part due to my ability to b.s. my way through almost anything.