It might not surprise some to hear that an institution as tradition-bound as mine has — yes — a final exam for first-year composition courses. Three and a half hours, with readings given twenty-four hours ahead of time. In some ways it makes sense, since future officers will certainly be faced with highly time-sensitive writing tasks, but beyond that rationale, the deeper reasons seem to not extend far beyond the philosophy that that’s the way it’s always been done, and that it wouldn’t be college without final exams. None of which I wholly buy, but the deeper problem is that I’m part of a writing program that’s undergoing some profound changes in bringing its theoretical underpinnings and pedagogical practice up to date, and one of those changes is a much-needed increase in the attention to revision — and a heavily weighted three-and-a-half hour one-shot fire-and-forget writing task assigned to all sections seems inimical to that increased attention. I don’t think the powers that be here will let such a thing go in the near future, so I’m thinking it’d at least be nice to re-orient it a bit; have it something like a writer’s retrospective essay that students can write in that three and a half hours, quoting and citing liberally from the writing they’ve done over the course of the semester, and set it up as an introduction to their final portfolio.
One thing that wouldn’t work with that, though, unless we did some re-tooling, is that the finals are blind-graded and group-graded: each essay gets read three times by three different instructors. What that means for me right now is that at 0735 this morning, 61 of my cadets opened up their laptops in the four classrooms I was managing and logged on to the Academy’s secure wireless network, received the writing prompt, wrote their essays, and submitted them electronically. At 1105 their time was up, and at 1300 I got together with 21 of my colleagues and did calibration (i.e., grade norming) for a little over an hour: we all looked at three common essays, discussed them, and arrived at a consensus on what we’d give them. After that, it was me and the computer screen until my eyes couldn’t take anymore, with a deadline of 1500 hours tomorrow for completion of the grading of the 183 blind essays I received (some of us have more, some of us fewer, depending on how many FYC sections we teach). And believe it or not, most of the cadets were smiling as they finished their essays, and it was really nice to get to shake their hands, wish them a happy holiday, and ask them how they felt about what they’d written. In fact, I’ll boast a bit, about two things: first, one cadet I worked with over the course of a couple months earlier in the fall won a Marshall Scholarship. Which is pretty rare — he was one of around 40 selected from the entire country — and pretty cool. Second, another cadet who had struggled considerably early on in the semester — when I asked him about what he’d submitted for the final — beamed and grinned ear to ear and said, “Sir, I think it’s the best thing I’ve written.”
You can’t not love that.
But OK: before the boasting, I was talking about final exams. And here’s what I’m thinking, especially given Bradley’s recent comment: if my institution, bound in tradition as it is, won’t let go of the final exam requirement, and if the writer’s retrospective essay might fly as a substitute for what we’ve got in place now, wouldn’t that be a strong argument as well for moving to wholly electronic portfolios, with the final exam writer’s retrospective serving as a sort of rhetorical cover sheet for the portfolio? We’ve got the technology, after all, and the institutional will to use it: I think the only opposition might come from those deeply invested in the write-on-demand philosophy, who might argue such an assignment would be too easy to prepare for ahead of time. But there is a sufficient diversity of things students can say about their own writing, I think, that it would be sufficiently easy to vary the prompt from year to year in ways that might still sufficiently foreground the importance of revision and reflection on one’s own writerly practices.
Have you experimented with such assignments? What are your thoughts?