What We’re Still Looking For in an Oral Exam

It’s that time of year when Human Situation students are getting ready for the final oral examination.  Since oral exams are rare and the students are largely freshmen, it’s understandable that they don’t quite know what to expect.  I have posted something over the last few years that turns out to be very helpful, so I’m reposting it now with a little freshening up.

First of all, if you’ve seen the rubric, you can tell that we are looking at the full range of texts in the semester.  At a minimum, you should have something to say about every text we read. We don’t expect total recall of the whole text of say, the Iliad; but it is not unreasonable for us to expect you to remember the names of major characters, the general incidents and outline of the work as well as some details that were personally significant to you. We dwell on particular scenes in discussion and lecture, and we’d expect those discussions to stick in your memory. And you’ve heard arguments that trace the broader arc of plot and character throughout the work. If you sound as though all you know could have been taken from Spark Notes, then we’re not that impressed.  We’d like you to show some fluency in the world of the Iliad. 

We also expect you to retain key elements of the arguments in a Platonic dialogue, or in philosophical essays like Seneca’s On Anger. It won’t work to just say, “Well, I read the Republic and I just don’t buy it.” While it’s fine to push back against arguments in such texts, you have do so with some detail. You don’t get points for gut reactions. Here the hard work you’ve done in your papers can really pay off.

Admittedly a more diffuse narrative text like Ovid’s Metamorphoses can be a challenge to keep in your head. But you can develop strategies to remember the episodes by thinking of their position within larger framing narratives, or by linking them thematically as you study. As always, committing to some level of detail on a part can be as important as getting a sense for the whole. Think which parts of the work connect most relevantly to your brief—that’s one way to prepare for the exam efficiently.

Ultimately, the exam shouldn’t really be all that much about your memory of texts and arguments—it’s not a trivia contest. It’s a lot more about your engagement with the reading. So what’s the difference between a B- and a solid A exam?  Here are some observations.

  1. An A exam feels like the examinee has conviction based upon a thoroughly digested reading of the texts.  This means thinking through the arguments, pulling them apart, comparing them, and coming up with new ideas. Hopefully you have done this in your discussion sections and your papers.  All that previous work is fair to use for the oral final; use it, but build on it. Repetition doesn’t get you much.
  2. An A exam is not one where we have to walk you through the connections.  Sometimes the examiner poses a question that immediately draws two texts into play.  Once you see the connection, a lot of things should fall into place. But if the examiner has to map them out for you, then you get a lot less credit for the discussion.
  3. In an A exam, the examinee is often as ready to teach as to learn. While we don’t expect it to happen in every exam, the fun thing for us is that we sometimes learn to see things differently based on what students say in the oral final. This again reflects not just assimilation of information, but a new synthesis and digestion of all this from your perspective.
  4. In an A exam, there is solid textual detail that naturally comes forward.  While we don’t expect you to remember everything we might mention, we do expect some decent kind of recall.  However, when you offer of your own accord some detailed textual analysis, we can’t help but be impressed. That’s why memorizing some parts of texts is always a great fallback, particularly when they are central to your understanding of the text.
  5. In an A exam, the examinee holds her own without bluster.  This means that in the give and take of questioning, she keeps her poise but also allows herself to think, in order to add judicious insight and nuance to her answers.  One common mistake is to think we’ll read bluster and obstinance as conviction and certainty.  You can get marked down for simply riding one hobby horse through all the texts, so remember that this is a conversation, not a debate tournament.  Learning to concede points, to qualify claims, or to reflect on the implications of a line of reasoning are all part of critical thinking. There is more to critical discourse than talking fast. Sometimes taking a moment to ponder and formulate an answer to a good question looks quite respectable.
  6. In terms of the show ChoppedYou need to use all of the ingredients from the basket, but it’s not enough just to toss them on the plate. You need to transform the ingredients and give us a real sense of your cooking skills.

Lastly, these observations are not made as some kind of ideal of what an A exam should be.  These are actual descriptions of what A exams are like, from the point of view of the examiner. There really are people out there who will get an A.  It’s not easy to do, but people do succeed at this all the time. And we are always very proud of them.  Good luck!

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The Czar speaks again…

Ok, so now to my surprise, the Trump campaign has brought forward a responsible party for the plagiarism in Melania’s speech. In the New York Times of July 20, we read that Meredith McIver, an in-house staff writer for the Trump Organization, has issued a statement claiming responsibility for the plagiarized elements that remained in the final draft of the speech. In the words of Jason Horowitz’s article (he said carefully referencing his source),

In the statement, Ms. McIver, a 65-year-old co-author of several books with Donald J. Trump, said that as she and Ms. Trump were preparing her speech, Ms. Trump mentioned that she admired Mrs. Obama and read to Ms. McIver parts of the first lady’s 2008 speech at the Democratic convention.

Ms. McIver said she had inadvertently left portions of the Obama speech in the final draft.

Now, part of me wishes that the speech had explicitly used the words of Michelle Obama. This could have been a very unifying kind of pivot. “Like the current First Lady, I share the values of hard work, etc.  But while all of us are united around some core values, we also have our differences. Which are…”  This is the kind of nuanced reasoning we teach to freshmen all the time, precisely because it breaks down the reptilian reliance on false dichotomies.  It also reminds us that one’s opponents in a genuine discussion of ideas are not one’s enemies. Instead, we got plagiarism backed up after the fact by the most common excuse of plagiarists: she “inadvertently left portions of the Obama speech in the final draft.”  This should have the credibility of the employee who, caught with a hand in the till, says, “I’m going to pay it back,” or the cheating spouse who blurts out, “This isn’t what it looks like.”

As the Czar of Plagiarism, let me explain two things.

  1. All plagiarists change something in the words they are stealing. Perhaps this is to assuage their guilt; perhaps it’s to throw off Turnitin.com.  Instead of establishing innocence, the changed elements establish mens rea.  Think about it: if you steal a car, you don’t sell it as is down the street. You repaint it at least, or chop it up for parts. So when apologists for Trump’s campaign pointed to the differences by way of exculpating Melania & Co, they were being much dumber than they meant to be. Tough guys and sharpies should know better than to look at the pieces of a stolen vehicle and say, “That’s not my car, mine isn’t in pieces.” The really clever plagiarists can even pass through the search engines of Turnitin.com by totally rewriting what they steal—but the charge of plagiarism still sticks when you’ve lifted the whole argument, including the particular evidence, and put it in your own terms.
  2. The most common excuse I hear these days from students busted for plagiarism—let me be clear, this is a small minority of the very honorable Honors students it is my pleasure to teach—is precisely this: “Oops. I didn’t mean for that to stay in. That’s a mistake.” I have literally heard students claim that they “accidentally” turned in their notes file (made up of copy-and-pasted stuff from Sparknotes.com or Wikipedia) instead of their final draft. But mind you, this “notes file” has no attribution of source, and is formatted just like a final draft, including a title page. Please, all ye entering freshmen, unlearn this excuse now. It will not save you from the consequences of plagiarism. If we were to accept it at face value, it would only expose just how terribly you do your research, since you apparently don’t label your notes files appropriately with references for your quotations. It’s not a great idea to run from being called a crook by embracing the idea you’re a moron. You’re a college student!

The saddest truth, though, is that Melania Trump herself, who claims to have been inspired by Michelle Obama’s words, didn’t notice the all-too-close resemblances. This of course undermines the credibility of the scenario we’ve been given. But let’s move on.

Plagiarism has no party affiliation; it’s a temptation even good students can succumb to in a jam. But hopefully this scandal will show matriculating students this fall that it’s not an option.  After all, they won’t have the excuse of a team of sloppy speech writers. Though I’ll probably hear that one, too, before too long.

 

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The Czar of Plagiarism Speaks

One of my less glorious roles in life is to be the Czar of Plagiarism in the Honors College—technically what is known as the First Hearing Officer.  This isn’t a large part of what I do, since in an Honors College we have, well, honor. But it’s important to follow through on the isolated cases of academic dishonesty that we do see.  It’s nothing I would talk much about normally…but then this isn’t a normal year.

So when Melania Trump cribbed a paragraph of her speech at the Republican National Convention, suddenly the whole world began to talk about plagiarism. This led to my sudden appearance on KHOU News:

http://www.khou.com/news/politics/trump-campaign-denies-plagiarism-in-melanias-speech-blames-reaction-on-clinton/276906049

I’m hoping at least this discussion will have a good effect on entering freshmen this fall. It really pays to do your own writing, particularly when you are talking about the values you learned as a child, how your word is your bond, etc.  On the other hand, I fear some students will take this example the other way, and think plagiarism has no consequences. Come to think of it, I better get ready for a busy year…

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What do we look for in an oral exam?

It’s that time of year when Human Situation students are getting ready for the final oral examination.  Since oral exams are rare and the students are largely freshmen, it’s understandable that they don’t quite know what to expect.  I posted something last year that turned out to be very helpful, so I’m reposting it now with a little freshening up.

First of all, if you’ve seen the rubric, you can tell that we are looking at the full range of texts in the semester.  At a minimum, you should have something to say about every text we read. We don’t expect total recall of the whole text of say, the Odyssey; but it is not unreasonable for us to expect you to remember the names of major characters, the general incidents and outline of the work as well as some details that were personally significant to you. We dwell on particular scenes in discussion and lecture, and we’d expect those discussions to stick in your memory. If you sound as though all you know could have been taken from Spark Notes, then we’re not that impressed.  You should really know who Polyphemus is, what the bow contest was, what’s so special about Odysseus’ bed or his scar, and whom Telemachus visits.

In a text like Plato’s Symposium, we expect you to retain the general nature of the speeches (yes, all of them) and how they relate to each other. We might throw a question at you like: why doesn’t the Symposium just end with the speech of Diotima?  It might be understandable that you’d forget the name Pausanias, but you should definitely remember the name Alcibiades and why his intrusion seems important. (And thanks to that last sentence, you will NOT forget the name Pausanias.)

Some of us are quite open to your challenging philosophical positions in the exam. For example, you might declare you find Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations to be seemingly inconsistent; however, expect immediately to be asked to explain the inconsistencies in detail.  It’s not enough to say, “I just don’t buy the argument.”  You should also be careful to review the meanings of words as defined in the context of the course. We might ask you, “What is yoga in the context of the Bhagavad Gita?” or “What would Marcus Aurelius think of kleos as a goal for virtuous action?”

If we are discussing the Hebrew Bible or a Christian work like Augustine’s Confessions, know that we expect you to engage them as texts. We are neither trying to convert you nor subvert your faith; but we are expecting you to enter into the terms and details of those books as texts. You don’t have to be a Christian or a Hindu to address a comparative question like, “How do Plato and Augustine see the nature of the soul’s desire as opposed to the Bhagavad Gita?”

Ultimately, the exam shouldn’t really be all that much about your memory of texts and arguments—it’s not a trivia contest. It’s a lot more about your engagement with the reading. So what’s the difference between a B- and a solid A exam?  Here are some observations.

  1. An A exam feels like the examinee has conviction based upon a thoroughly digested reading of the texts.  This means thinking through the arguments, pulling them apart, comparing them, and coming up with new ideas. Hopefully you have done this in your discussion sections and your papers.  All that previous work is fair to use for the oral final; use it, but build on it. Repetition doesn’t get you much.
  2. An A exam is not one where we have to walk you through the connections.  Sometimes the examiner poses a question that immediately draws two texts into play.  Once you see the connection, a lot of things should fall into place. But if the examiner has to map them out for you, then you get a lot less credit for the discussion.
  3. In an A exam, the examinee is often as ready to teach as to learn. While we don’t expect it to happen in every exam, the fun thing for us is that we sometimes learn to see things differently based on what students say in the oral final. This again reflects not just assimilation of information, but a new synthesis and digestion of all this from your perspective.
  4. In an A exam, there is solid textual detail that naturally comes forward.  While we don’t expect you to remember everything we might mention, we do expect some decent kind of recall.  However, when you offer of your own accord some detailed textual analysis, we can’t help but be impressed. That’s why memorizing some parts of texts is always a great fallback, particularly when they are central to your understanding of the text.
  5. In an A exam, the examinee holds her own without bluster.  This means that in the give and take of questioning, she keeps her poise but also allows herself to think, in order to add judicious insight and nuance to her answers.  One common mistake is to think we’ll read bluster and obstinance as conviction and certainty.  You can get marked down for simply riding one hobby horse through all the texts, so remember that this is a conversation, not a debate tournament.  Learning to concede points, to qualify claims, or to reflect on the implications of a line of reasoning are all part of critical thinking. There is more to critical discourse than talking fast. Sometimes taking a moment to ponder and formulate an answer to a good question looks quite respectable.
  6. In terms of the show ChoppedYou need to use all of the ingredients from the basket, but it’s not enough just to toss them on the plate. You need to transform the ingredients and give us a real sense of your cooking skills.

Lastly, these observations are not made as some kind of ideal of what an A exam should be.  These are actual descriptions of what A exams are like, from the point of view of the examiner. There really are people out there who will get an A.  It’s not easy to do, but people do succeed at this all the time. And we are always very proud of them.  Good luck!

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Theater: The Drama of Ourselves

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of working on a cd with John Lienhard that served as one of the premiums for the KUHF pledge drive that year. It was all centered on theater, and featured our Engines of Our Ingenuity colleagues Andy Boyd and Roger Kaza in addition to ourselves.

In case you missed it, the content is available online now here.

One of those many great things that comes from being a part of the Engines team!

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An Awesome Bit of Synergy

So here’s why I love my job. An awesome colleague, Ricardo Nuila, MD, came to us with a project: mounting a service learning trip to a clinic in Santa Ana Honduras run by an NGO, Shoulder to Shoulder. With the help of student assistants from the Bonner Leaders program, we were able to make this happen and selected 17 amazing students from the Honors College at UH—including Jonathan Adams, a Classical Studies minor and Biochem major (renaissance man!). We added to this crew a talented  young videographer, Abigail Hagan, who had gone with the Honors College before on a mission to Haiti, organized by my colleague Shasta Jones. In the end, Ms. Hagan produced this amazing video that reveals all that is so important about this endeavor:

Honors Service Abroad to Honduras, 2015 from Abigail Hagan on Vimeo.

We have just received another batch of applications from students eager to participate in this clinical project, and we see another crop of committed and talented young people ready to go, thanks in part to this video. When I see things like this happen, I think I have the best job in the world!

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New Book in our series with Ohio State UP

I had one of those funny moments today.  I received several new books in the mail, and I looked at one with the title Ancient Sex and thought—wow, who sent me this? Then I realized, “Oh, yeah, that’s the next in our series with Ohio State UP!”  Ok, it had been a long day. We sent it off for printing a few months ago, and I hadn’t seen the final design; the volume is very handsome indeed. blondell_ormand_ancient

The contents are dynamite. Ruby Blondell and Kirk Ormand have done a wonderful job in bringing together a team of scholars to tackle ancient sexuality from new angles (I know, sounds like some kind of erotic football, I should police my metaphors better). Here’s the blurb:

Ancient Sex: New Essays presents groundbreaking work in a post-Foucauldian mode on sexuality, sexual identities, and gender identities in ancient Greece and Rome. Since the production of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, the field of classics has been caught in a recursive loop of argument regarding the existence—or lack thereof—of “sexuality” (particularly “homosexuality”) as a meaningful cultural concept for ancient Greece and Rome. Much of the argument concerning these issues, however, has failed to engage with the central argument of Foucault’s work, namely, the assertion that sexuality as we understand it is the correlative of a historically specific form of medical and legal discourse that emerged only in the late nineteenth century.

Rather than reopening old debates, Ancient Sex takes up Foucault’s call for discursive analysis and elucidates some of the ways that ancient Greek and Roman texts and visual arts articulate a culturally specific discourse about sexual matters. Each contributor presupposes that sexual and gendered identities are discursively produced, and teases out some of the ways that the Greeks and Romans spoke and thought about these issues. Comprising essays by emerging and established scholars, this volume emphasizes in particular: sexual discourses about women; the interaction between sexual identities and class status; gender as an unstable discursive category (even in antiquity); and the relationships between ancient and modern sexual categories.

We’re very proud of our latest addition to the series Classical Memories / Modern Identities, and are of course always looking for new submissions.

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