May 14, 2006

This is obviously the best time for a blog post.

I've got two finals down -- one in a flurry of post-it tabs and the other anticlimactically by email -- and one to go. Tomorrow morning is Mediterranean Anthropology, which, of everything I took this semester, was the most typical upper-division anthropology course: lecture and essay, essay and lecture. The final is the classic social science final in which the unlucky student brings a bluebook and a half-gallon of nervous sweat into an unfamiliar room and writes essays until his or her writing hand is too cramped to form legible characters.

Jacob and I had a conversation yesterday in which I mentioned that this kind of final is always nerve-wracking afterwards because of all the things that I realize later I should have included. He stared at me uncomprehendingly; apparently if you're a biology major your finals merely ask questions to which you simply know or don't know the answers. This is a model I've hardly seen in my college career -- my architecture classes always preferred to test my response to crushing criticism after sleepless nights of work, and my anthropology classes have insisted on testing my ability to summon supporting examples under extreme time pressure. A test in which knowledge of the correct answer is sufficient to earn a good grade sounds like the kind of simple, brilliant idea that leaves a shaken world scratching its head. My god -- how could we have failed to think of this?

I understand that it's not a model that works for social science; you can't very well turn questions like what is the honor/shame complex, how is it manifest in the Mediterranean region, and what are the problems with its representation in anthropological literature? into true-false questions or even short answers. Any answer that could be given briefly is probably an oversimplification, and any answer without supporting evidence is unjustifiable. Pithy answers and flimsy evidence are the biggest problems in the history of anthropology, and they're what you have to teach students to avoid if they're going to be worth anything as scholars.

But does it have to be such a damned ordeal? I'm thinking of bringing a pair of pliers with me to the test, since I already know I'm going to be pulling teeth.

Posted by dianna at May 14, 2006 10:30 PM

This, of course, raises the larger question of what the point of having a time-limited in-class closed-book exam in anthropology even is. I've grown highly suspicious of the pedagogical merit of in-class exams in subjects where depth of knowledge is valued over breadth. I just don't see how anyone can be expected to give an answer to an in-class exam that isn't over-simplified and poorly supported.

But, of course, questioning the merits of the system is exactly what you don't want to do the night before the test. Good luck! I'm sure you know the material better than you think you know it, which should be pretty darn well!

Posted by: Zach S. at May 14, 2006 11:19 PM