Penman No. 65: Tried and Tested

Penman for Monday, Sept. 23, 2013

LAST WEEK’S piece on the kind of open-book exam I give my students reminded me of the toughest exams I myself had to take as a student. It’s been more than two decades since I last stepped into a classroom and sat opposite the professor’s table and chair, but the memory of those exams remains vivid—in some cases, distressingly so.

I have to declare, at the outset, that unlike most students, I liked exams, especially in subjects that I knew I would do well in. I got a thrill from being tried and literally tested; I saw the exam as a game of wits between me and my professor, and while my professor certainly knew much more than I did about the subject, I was always on the lookout for angles and insights that my professor might never have considered, and would therefore appreciate as something fresh. I disdained what professors call “spitback”—the rote regurgitation of points already discussed in class—knowing that many of my classmates were going to do just that.

I was, in other words, something of a smartass, and like all the annoying smartasses you remember and loved to hate from high school and college, I deserved and got my occasional comeuppance. Returning to college after a ten-year absence, I thought I could wing it in my Lit classes, but instead got the loudest wake-up calls I possibly could, from two professors known to be formidable “terrors” in the English department—Filonila Tupas and Damiana Eugenio—both of whom gave me a “5.0” in the objective quizzes that they began the semester with. Thankfully these were diagnostic quizzes, and the diagnosis was clear: I had to hit the books to do well, so I became a textual bloodhound, memorizing odd details and references (plants from Shakespeare: wild thyme, oxlips, woodbine, eglantine). I would not embarrass myself again—or so I thought.

Shakespeare and the Elizabethan age became a passion for me, a period fraught with dark political intrigue and steeped in grime yet also ennobled by some of the most sublime poetry ever written. It wasn’t even Shakespeare so much as the lesser poets and dramatists around him—Sidney, Wyatt, Webster, Middleton, Marlowe—who piqued my interest, thanks to a teacher who took kindly to an older student making up for lost time (I was 27 when I returned as a freshman to UP; my Paulinian colegiala classmate, Judy Ick—who would go on to become Dr. Ick, the real Shakespeare expert in the department—was just 17).

That teacher was the impeccably fashionable Prof. Sylvia Ventura, commended (as Shakespeare himself might have put it) by all the swains but feared by most of her students for the spot-passages exams she gave. (A spot-passage exam gives you nothing but an obscure passage drawn from the text of a play or a poem, for you to identify, contextualize, and discuss.) I thought I was doing pretty well in her class until the final exam, when I ran into a passage that might as well have been Greek. Knowing that I had absolutely no chance of identifying the passage correctly, I gathered my wits and used Shakespeare himself to explain my predicament, beginning my answer (whatever it was) with a quote from Act I, Scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “So quick bright things come to confusion!” Apparently it worked, because I escaped with a 1.25.

The toughest teacher I had in UP, however, was the legendary Wilhelmina Ramas, whose final exam on “The Idea of Tragedy” took us five hours and several bluebooks to finish—a herculean effort rewarded, in my case, with a niggardly (and probably accurate) 1.75. Soon after, I flew off the US for graduate school, and it was only then that I appreciated the rigor that my UP “terror” profs had put me through. Their American incarnations were tweed-suited dons rather than coiffed matrons, but they were no less demanding. I had come well prepared.

In my Shakespeare class at Michigan, taught by the pipe-smoking Russell Fraser, I felt like I had orchids coming out of my ears when Dr. Fraser commended me for being the only one in class to be able to answer his question about differentiating “hypotaxis” from “parataxis” (no, it has nothing to do with paid transportation). That still didn’t save me from the pain of Fraser’s final exam: a spot-passage exam, employing two totally unheard-of quotations from Shakespeare’s plays, with one question to answer: “Which is early and which is late Shakespeare, and why?” This was also an open-book exam that we had one day to complete; we were free to roam the library and to read Shakespeare from end to end.

Now, mind you, this was 1986, well before the Internet and Google; students were still using 5.25” floppy disks, if they were using computers at all (I wasn’t; I’d dragged my Olympia portable with me across the Pacific). Today my students would take seconds to find the answer to “early” and “late”, and maybe an hour to cough up a reasonable “why.” Back in ’86, it was all intelligent guesswork, knowing that no amount of speed-reading and cramming could possibly turn up those passages, let alone contextualize them. And Fraser knew that; whether we had the “early/late” part of the question right or wrong, he wanted to see us reasoning our way through our answers, given what we knew from class of the younger and the older Shakespeare. (Only later, in the age of Google, would I discover that Fraser was then at work on two books: Young Shakespeare, and Shakespeare: The Later Years.) I can’t recall how I scored on that exam—I passed the course with an A-minus—but it was the kind of exam that was both gut-wrenching and exhilarating at the same time; I loved it.

Still later, now doing my PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I had a professor in Bibliography and Research named James Kuist. As mild-mannered as he was, Dr. Kuist had a fiendishly difficult task for us to complete. His exam question went like this: “The year is 1663 and I am a Fellow of the Royal Society. What books would be on my bookshelf?” So off we went to the library on a wild goose chase, and like an eager labrador retriever, I enjoyed the hunt, searching the stacks for the spoor of these antiquarian volumes.

Now that I’m the one giving the exams, I hope to come up with questions and problems that my students will remember 20 years from now, and still get a bit of a headache from—or let’s make that the pleasant buzz, the distant refrain, of an unusually agitated mind.

One thought on “Penman No. 65: Tried and Tested

  1. Your essay roiled my memories of my days in U.P. (pre-Google era) when we had to do research by using volumes and volumes of the Chemical Abstracts with their ever so tiny prints. Ughh.
    and then again, precious memories!

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