What do we look for in an oral exam?

It’s that time of year when Human Situation students are being assessed in 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’m asked fairly often what we’re looking for in the exam, so while it’s fresh in my mind, I thought I’d post this. It might be helpful for next term if it’s too late for you now.

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 conflict 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.

In a text like Plato’s Apology of Socrates, we expect you to retain the general outline of the important arguments as well as the outcome of the trial. We might throw a question at you like: if Socrates successfully refutes the charges against him, why does he still get convicted?  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.”

If it’s a text from the Hebrew Bible or New Testament, we expect you to have approached the work as a text with an eye to details, arguments, inconsistencies.  Even if you’ve never been exposed to Judaism or Christianity, that much textual work you can do. And if you have been exposed to the Bible before, it’s important for you to realize your denominational education may have taught you to read it in a particular way, one that might not be compatible with what we’ve been doing with it as a text. We are not trying to convert you or subvert your faith. But we do expect you to understand, for example, Paul’s argument about grace in the Letter to the Romans, or just what he means by the law.

That’s the easy stuff, frankly. The exam shouldn’t really be all that much about your memory of texts and arguments. 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 getting an A.  It’s not easy to do, but people do succeed at this. And we are very proud of them.  Good luck!


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Recent Work

It’s been a very busy year in the Honors College, as we adjust to new growth in our programs. But I’ve been pleased to see some things to completion (for full publication details, see my publications page).

43526Two lengthy articles have appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek Language and Linguistics in 2014 (Brill).  One on the translation of the Homeric poems is a continuation of my interests in translation studies, and I used the opportunity to learn more about the ancient Greek paraphrases we find in ancient and medieval manuscripts of the poems.  I am grateful to my colleague Casey Dué Hackney, whose work on the Homer Multitext and manuscripts is an inspiration to us all.  The other article on the Roman Translation of Greek Texts continues another translation interest of mine, and I benefitted from Siobhán McElduff’s great new book, Roman Theories of Translation: Surpassing the Source (Routledge, 2013). I also drew from her co-edited volume,  Complicating the History of Translation: The Ancient Mediterranean In Perspective (St. Jerome, 2011), which I reviewed for Classical Review (64.2 [2014]:1-3).

I think it’s an exciting time to be doing translation studies in Classics, which is why I am pleased to announce that Alexandra Lianeri (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki) and I have finally concluded our negotiations with Wiley-Blackwell for A Companion to Translation of Classical Epic, which we hope to shape into a useful guide not just for the field of translation studies currently existing in classical studies, but also for the future.  We are hoping to blend reception studies and translation studies into something we call translational reception.

Also this year, I completed a book chapter that gives an overview of textual transmission for a forthcoming Companion to Greek Literature (Wiley-Blackwell).   The title might seem strange: “A Wound Not a World: Textual Survival and Transmission.” I decided to begin this survey by first contemplating the vast amount of things we have lost from the ancient world of books, which was an interesting kind of negative research. I then go on to explain how in the light of those losses, even the smallest fragments recovered in papyri can be a substantial advance.  But the metaphor of the wound is now my favorite one for the ancient archive: it’s a wound we tend, not a world we can visit.

Which is not to say we can’t visit the ruins! This year, I also enjoyed joining other University of Houston faculty in conPompeiitributing to the Los Angeles Review of Books, for which I reviewed Ingrid Rowland’s very enjoyable From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town. It was great to revisit the sites we saw most recently on our 2012 Honors College Tour of Italy. If you climb to the top of Vesuvius, you certainly develop a wider perspective on how nature and culture are connected in this historic region. Rowland’s book certainly does it justice. Still drawing on that experience, I finally did an episode of Engines of Our Ingenuity on the mass death during the great eruption, “CSI: Herculaneum.” UH_MaisonWhile touring France with another Honors group this summer, I was also able to visit the Maison Carrée of Nîmes to take the picture I’ve needed for another episode.  I have long wanted to write on Thomas Jefferson’s obsession with that ancient Roman temple, so I was glad to finally get that on the air (episode 2977). That was, by the way, my last episode recorded in the MD Anderson library studio with the ever excellent Nate McKee, who has moved on to great things.

On the Freud front, I continue to plug away at Theory and Theatricality: Classical Drama in the Age of Grand Hysteria, the working title of my monograph on Freud, classical drama, and the development of psychological theories between 1880 and 1914 (forthcoming from Oxford UP). This work has taken me into many interesting directions in the medical humanities, including early medical photography. Needless to say, the project has transformed the way in which I think about performance, as I am tracing the simultaneous development of stage performance cultures in Paris and Vienna and theatricality in medical science, particularly in Charcot’s Salpêtrière clinic.  In the course of writing the book, I have spent a long time reading about the long history of hysteria, and I think I have even pinpointed just when the term hysteria was coined, and by whom (one of those small philological victories). You’ll have to wait to find out the details…  I’ll be sharing some of this book with the folks at U Penn in March, where we’ll be doing a conference on Freud in celebration of the Penn Medical School’s 250th anniversary.

While working on the book, I’ve enjoyed reading drafts of my friend Joel Whitebook’s forthcoming intellectual biography of Freud (Cambridge UP). Joel is an intense reader of Freud, one uniquely poised between the practices of psychoanalysis and philosophy.  This will definitely be a book to read when it comes out—stay tuned for that, too!

Also on the Freud front, I completed a contract with Routledge for a Reader’s Guide to the Interpretation of Dreams. Last spring I taught my Myth and Dreams course again, which reminded how amazingly well students write dream analyses.  This made me want to continue this kind of work, in my own writing as well as my teaching. I have long been obsessed with this book, ever since I was a freshman at U Chicago. I have been amassing observations on it for some time, which I hope to disclose in a helpful way in this new project. Luckily my experience at the Blocker Library at UTMB Galveston has shown me just where to find various editions of that work, which has a complex publication history. I look forward to returning to the Blocker to delve more deeply into these things. And of course, I am logging my dreams.

2014 has been a banner year for our series at Ohio State University Press, with three great new books appearing. You can read all about it here. There are even more good things to come in the series very soon, and we are always looking for new work.

2015 will see me hunkered down, finishing the many things I have started. This means no study abroad trips for me this year, though I have been proud to be the first chair of the new Study Abroad / Study Away committee in Honors. We have worked together to create new opportunities for service learning in Haiti and Honduras in particular, and I am very happy to see our Honors students integrating their learning with genuine good works in the world. But I look forward to our “Dream Team Tour of Greece” in 2016, where I will enjoy the good company of my colleagues Casey Dué Hackney, Jonathan Zecher, and Sarah Costello along with our families and of course the ever-eager-to-travel Honors students. And that is truly something to look forward to! (If you’re an interested student, you should act fast! We’re booking up pretty well already!)

Here’s to a productive 2015 for all of us!

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