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.

Penman No. 64: The Outsider in the Story

Penman for Monday, Sept. 16, 2013

AS MY literature students know, there’s only one kind of exam they can expect me to give them—a 90-minute, essay-type, open-book exam. This means that, over a class period, they’ll be answering two or three questions with short essays that they can compose with the help of their notes, their readings, and their brains.

The first time they hear this, some students will cheer, thinking that an open-book exam will be a walk in the park, and that they can catch up on two month’s worth of reading and comprehension with 15 minutes of furtive cramming. (As they like to say on Pawn Stars, “That’s not going to happen.”) The smarter ones know that the best way to get my attention from this point on will be to say something fresh, beyond spitting back what we’d already said in class or quoting some ponderous French critic.

Just like answering them, writing exam questions is something of an art. Ideally, you want to frame questions that are hard to answer but easy to check—in other words, you should be able to sense, within a couple of paragraphs, if the student has a handle on the material or not. You also want questions for which there are no set or obvious answers. In this way, literature and the humanities are different from math and the sciences, in that there is no one correct answer that, with diligence and practice, everyone can theoretically arrive at. I grade responses based on the student’s appreciation of the problem and his or her reasoning; sometimes I might even give a high mark to an answer that doesn’t directly answer the question, but which sets up and pursues such an interesting tangent or dissent that I find myself provoked and educated by it.

Over the years, I’ve built up a battery of questions that I periodically revisit, tweak, and let loose on a new batch of students. Today, I’m taking one of those questions out of commission by putting it out here in the open, and answering it myself. It’s a question I used a few weeks ago for my midterm exam in my course on The Short Story, and while I may change the phrasing from time to time, it basically runs this way: “The Irish writer Frank O’Connor once described the short story as ‘the story of the outsider.’ Using at least three of the stories that we’ve taken up in our reader, discuss how and why O’Connor could have made this statement about the short story.”

What am I looking for when I ask that question? The bottom line, of course, is evidence that the student has read and understood the stories in the syllabus—this is where my passing grade begins—but beyond that, going from competence to brilliance, I look for insight and (this being, after all, a course in literature) articulation. In the case of the O’Connor statement about the short story and the outsider, two immediate possibilities present themselves: one, the outsider as the typical or ideal protagonist in the short story; and two, the short story as the ideal form for the depiction and development of the outsider-character. So we’re looking both at substance or subject and form, both of which the Lit major and budding creative writer should have a keen feel for. (And before anyone lectures me about ending my sentences with prepositions, that’s one of those mythical no-no’s, like the split infinitive, that have been elevated by sheer repetition into dictum.)

Taking the outsider as subject, it’s not too difficult to find and cite instances where the protagonist in the short story is an outsider in society—a nonconformist, a rebel, an outcast. Perhaps the best known example of such a character I can cite is that of Sammy in John Updike’s 1962 story “A&P,” a 19-year-old clerk in a convenience store who quits his job when the conservative store manager admonishes three girls who come into the store in bathing suits, the beach being not too far away. Sammy seems to come to the girls’ defense—ironically, the girls don’t even notice his chivalry—but the girls are really just an excuse, a catalyst for an explosion that had been long brewing within Sammy, who sees most of his customers as “sheep” and who feels oppressed by his environment. So he dramatically, heroically, quits his job, but realizes almost immediately that a nonconformist’s life is not going to be an easy one, as the story’s ending unequivocally states: “… my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.” (Having taught it for nearly 30 years now, I’ve been using “A&P” as a kind of litmus test to sense the drift of the current generation. My own First Quarter Storm cohort would have roundly applauded Sammy’s idealism; not surprisingly, most of my present students thought he was irresponsible if not stupid to have quit his job to make a point.)

Another example of such a character is Paul from Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case.” Although published in 1905, the story could easily be transported to the “selfie” present, given 16-year-old Paul’s egotism and high ambition; he thinks himself well above his peers in intelligence and taste, and imbibes the world of the theater, even if his only role in it is that of an usher. When Paul suddenly finds himself with several thousand dollars entrusted to him by his father for depositing in the bank, Paul runs away with the money to New York, lives the life of a prince for a week, then—with the long arm of the law just about to reach him—he hurls himself in front of an oncoming train. Here, the outsider willfully chooses to be one, the exclusion achieved by arrogance and self-delusion (or, to be more generous, by indulging the high-romantic impulse that most of us will suppress).

The outsider might also become one not by choice but by social fiat; Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill” is one such outcast, one who feels herself to be in the very center of things, observing people in a park with directorial authority, only to be spurned by that society. Society can also exert its pressures subtly but no less firmly, as in the case of Miss Mijares in Kerima Polotan’s “The Virgin,” where a thirtyish spinster’s longing for a man’s touch overrides her primly preserved composure.

The more difficult part of the answer involves form and technique: what in the short story qualifies it as ideal for the exploration of the outsider-character?

The short story’s relative brevity, for one, compels the action to be focused on a crucial moment, often a decision to be made by the protagonist, that will reveal the truth of his or her character. In this sense, short story characters live in a pressure cooker; at some point, we expect them to crack and break, and it’s these moments of rupture that yield the most valuable insights into the human condition, whether it’s the extent of human greed or of our capability for love and self-sacrifice. Arguably, these moments create departures from the norm and transform the protagonist into something other than he or she was, rendering the protagonist an outsider unto himself or herself.

But the best answer I got in the midterm exam was something I hadn’t even thought of: the short story brings out the outsider in us, the readers, by creating sympathy for characters in situations that our ordinary, rational selves would probably avoid. And that’s the magic and the power of literature—its ability to transform and transport us into other realms and possibilities, so that, for one brief moment, we stand on the outside looking in, and see things about ourselves that we never saw before.