Monday, December 11, 2006

Graduate School Exams

Is there any situation in which being essentialist or reductive is acceptable, useful, or positive?

We have final exams as graduate students here at UVA. Readers of my plan will already know how irate I am about them as well as my reasoning: they don't say anything about how much we read or how well we read it; they stress us out; professors don't read them; they are a big waste of time. But today Carolyn pointed out the basic reason why such exams are, in her (irate) opinion, harmful: they force us to essentialize what we learn. If our job as scholars is to identify nuances and to make accurate statements rather than generalizations, then these exams have absolutely nothing to do with our true work here. Are they just to make us do the reading over the course of the semester? Shouldn't the $20,000 per year that I'm paying to be here, or the six years of her life and a future of ease and wealth that she's giving up be enough to convince us to do our work dutifully?

Carolyn is equally irate over having to give reading quizzes to her undergraduate students; she feels that one-page response papers not only give students a chance to think for themselves, but assures them that such thought is as or more valuable than the ability to reproduce the information that has already been presented to them. As a graduate student, Carolyn feels particularly angry that professors are asking her to lower herself to the level of regurgitating information or summarizing a topic so broad that it would be laughable as a dissertation topic ("Question 2: Simply put, what is the novel in the eighteenth century?"), sensing that there is something wrong in the department's valuation of its graduate students if this is the sort of "work" they are expected to produce, even as just a sidenote at the end of a semester.

Mark, equally frustrated, was trying to come up with reasons why such essentialization is useful. Are these the kind of questions that will be on our orals (in which case, I would ask, what are our orals trying to accomplish)? Or will a journalist come along once we are famous professors and ask us for a sound byte about something that has about 34,208 dimensions but that they'll only give us twenty-five words or less to discuss?

The question seems to me to be the difference between being correct, and being practical. Whatever answer Carolyn gives in the hour she has to explain what a novel is in the 18th century, it's not going to be correct, which is what frustrates her. But perhaps being able to be incorrect in a particular way is valuable as well. In my family, that means being able to explain why poetry is amazing to a Christmas table full of people who wouldn't know a poem if it ran them over. Certainly Carolyn's answer won't be useful or even valid to a scholar. But perhaps this is the only method of translation to a culture that isn't as interested in what is correct as they are interested in easy definitions of things. I think back to when I used to work in the corporate world, and the greatest skill you could have was to be able to say what you needed to convey as quickly as possible, to hell with nuances. To be able (technically and emotionally) to make the concessions necessary to essentialize is perhaps a (dare I say) essential part of exporting our work to the non-academic world. Because if we can't do that, what are we really doing?

And, furthermore, perhaps it's even academically useful to be able to synthesize. If you're doing work on nineteenth-century novels, knowing what a novel was in the eighteenth century will be useful, even if what you remember from that eighteenth century class is somewhat generalized and dumbed down, don't you think? And, if the complaint is that this generalized snapshot of the eighteenth-century novel is the "generally accepted" view only, isn't that interesting and useful to know too? I find that one of my biggest problems in developing and writing criticism is that I don't know how the majority of people will read the text; I have a hard time saying that "at first blush, it seems that x is the way that this should be read" because I just read things differently from most people, even the first time around. That eventually makes writing original criticism easier, but first I have to figure out how other people read the text. Obviously this can and should be done by every critic by consulting other criticism, but I think I have a harder time than some other people knowing how "everyone" reads a text. Which is maybe where knowing the essentialized version of what other people think of something might come in handy.

So again I ask whether this kind of re-presentation of learned material is useful. What do you think?

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