Sunday, April 22, 2007

Who would have thought I'd be at this two years later?

Looking over my archives, I'm amazed to see that I started this blog over two years ago. At that time everybody had a blog, it seemed, and I didn't want to be left out.

At the same time, I didn't really find very many blogs very interesting because they were so pointedly personal. They really were web logs, literally logging whatever the blogger had done that day. Today I got up and watched SNL from last night and then had a shower...

So I decided to make my blog more about thoughts I had that seemed a bit nutty if I brought them up in conversation, but somehow seemed dignified by prose. You can't just walk up to someone and say, hey, guess how I get rid of weeds! I redefine them! But somehow in the blog it sounds sort of funny, I think.

One of my favourite parts about blogging is that every once in a while people actually seem to have read what I've written. One reader told me it changed her mind about blogs in general which was a very nice compliment. Another told me she didn't get her schoolwork done one night because she went on my web site looking for research material and ended up reading the blog instead. I'm still not sure how to feel about that.

I've also been fascinated by which entries have garnered the most comments. Religion seems to get people talking -- and I heard a fair bit about my critique of Jesus take the Wheel. One of the few highly negative reactions I got, though not posted, came after my post about the war in Afghanistan -- which is understandable. And for some reason the issue of gendered bathrooms sparked a fair bit of debate. So the blog lets me keep up on the state of the culture, too, I guess.

So for those of you who have been loyal readers or who would like to be, keep reading when you can, and I'll write when I have a thought. And keep the comments coming. And tell your friends.

And we'll see where we are in a couple of years.

Friday, April 06, 2007

About Face

Recently it has been suggested to me that I am too critical and cynical in this blog and that I should write something positive for a change; it has also been suggested that I write something about the Facebook craze that I myself have recently become part of. So consider this a two-birds-one-stone entry for my loyal readers. Here goes.

I love Facebook.

For those of you out of the loop – as I myself was until recently – Facebook is a website that allows people to post personal profiles and then link to the profiles of other people in a variety of ways. It sounds simple enough – and it is – but it quickly becomes addictive. Looking at people's pictures, exchanging messages,and, my personal favourite, getting an updated “news feed” about what your friends are doing – this is how I've been spending my time lately. What are my friends woirking on? How are they feeling? Why are more than one of them pictured suggestively with fruits and vegetables?

Admittedly, Facebook stretches the concept of “friend” pretty far. Some of my “friends” are people I don't know all that well and some are people I haven't seen in years. But that is precisely the point: it lets you keep track of people that you wouldn't have time to catch up with otherwise, or that you had lost track of altogether, or that you've always wanted to know more about but were too shy to ask.

And I guess that's what I really love about Facebook. While so many people are out there using the internet for spreading hate or selling kiddie porn or trying to convince me that I can get millions simply by sending my bank account number to Namibia, Facebook is populated by people doing what we ought to be doing more often. Getting to know each other.

And if that's not positive, well I don't know what is.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The case for exams

A recent item in the local newspaper did something very difficult: it offended me. It offended me so much, in fact, that I have set aside my piles of late-semester work and turned to the blog to provide a rebuttal. Perhaps some of you are wondering what the point of exams is and have set aside your studying to surf the net. Let's consider the case against exams recently presented.

The author took aim at the practice of giving exams at universities, my own in particular. "They do not benefit students at all," said the author, so why have them? His critique was as follows:

1.Exams exist primarily as means by which professors torture their students by forcing them to submit to the "twisted formula" by which students are assessed and by which their efforts are graded. They are, our correspondent intones, "a new form of hell created by vindictive teachers and professors."

2. Students do not learn from exams and so they can only be a means by which the diabolical instructors, that is, the benighted ones who don't "get it," exercise their arbitrary authority over cowering students. The students, he says, are so terrified that they freeze and "are afraid to do anything," not even scratch an itch lest they be accused of misbehaving.

3. Once completed and graded, professors use exams to subject students to further "humiliation" and "punishment" by telling everyone who got the lowest grades.

I respond as follows:

1. Professors do not assign exams to be vindictive or because they have never considered any other means of evaluation. Rather, we provide exams because they are, by and large, an effective means of determining which students have acquired a mastery of the material and to what degree. Moreover, they do so in a means that is relatively objective and fair. What is the alternative? We simply spend a semester chatting and at the end, I assign whatever grade I feel like? Surely that would be open to much more abuse of power than most exams today. Exams are not perfect of course, but in many courses (my own included) they are not the only means of evaluation either.

2. To complain that students don't learn from exams is like complaining that thermometers are lousy heaters: it's true but it misses the point. Exams are not meant to teach; they are meant to test what students have learned. To have such a testing process is reasonable. If I go to a physician, it is not enough for me that she has merely explored ideas about medicine; I want to know that she has demonstrated her deep knowledge of the subject to experts in the field and has satisfied them that she knows what she's talking about. Indeed, the public has the right to expect this rigour of all university graduates. An English degree should mean that the holder has demonstrated knowledge of the English language and its literature and has shown skill in thinking and writing critically about those things. Exams may not benefit students directly, but universities exist not to serve individual students per se, but to serve society as a whole by providing meaningful education. In this sense, exams do benefit students because they help establish that their degrees actually mean something.

The notion that students are so frightened by exams that they can only sit and cower (and not, say, answer questions) is absurd. By the time they reach university, students have taken many exams and they know how to handle it. Good students realize that if they are well prepared, there is no need to panic. To be sure, most students do get stressed, but there is nothing wrong with that. Difficult things are difficult. A few may be stressed beyond healthy levels, but there are avenues by which such students can get help, including a university counseling service, an office for students with disabilities, and, of course, a range of public health services.

3. In my nine years as a university student and my seven years as a faculty member, I have never seen a professor reveal a student's low grade in class or use a bad grade to deliberately humiliate a student in front of peers. I cannot even recall knowing anyone (other than our columnist who never says he actually saw such a thing, only that "some professors" do it) who ever claimed to have witnessed this kind of event. Perhaps it has happened, but such an action would be grounds for a very serious complaint to the administration, not least of all because it would violate a student's legal right to privacy.

Exams, like thermometers, take a small sample and though they are not always exact, they are usually a good indication of what's going on. Just as you only need one thermometer to tell you how warm the whole pool is, one three hour exam is a good indication of what the student has learned in the past three months. The fact is, that good students writing fair exams do well. Students who are not well prepared have themselves to blame. If the exam is unfair, there are means of appeal. But in my experience, most professors bend over backwards to ensure that exams are fair if not downright easy. We provide review, sample questions, and advice on how to study effectively. My exams are given in a modular format to allow students to take breaks and leave the room if need be. I have more than one student this year who will be writing exams in the disability centre so that they can more easily focus on the questions.

The kind of critique that I outlined above and tried to refute is offensive not because it calls me stupid, vindictive, and Satanic -- I can handle that -- but because it speaks from an alarmingly anti-intellectual position, a position that eschews standards and rigour in favour of the nebulous "free flow of ideas" as though every idea is equally interesting and every suggestion equally true. But if that were the goal, why have universities and degrees at all? Our columnist, I suspect, like so many others, wants the benefit of an education without the real costs. He wants to be taught by learned men and women while sneering at the process by which they have become so. He wants the credential that says he is an educated man without having to show what he has done to deserve that credential.

So to all students, I say this. I know it's hard. It's good that it's hard. Really valuable things are usually hard to get. So take a deep breath, let it out, and let's all get back to work.