Preparing Your Students for the Final Exam

All of what I’m about to say works a lot better if you have a somewhat systematic approach to lecturing, and you’ve drafted a thoughtful final exam that reflects this. But if it was your first time teaching and you didn’t quite have all your ducks in a row yet – or if you just had one of those semesters – all of this still applies. You may just need to provide more sample questions and work a little harder to explain what the exam will look like so that your students can predict what’s coming. Since most of you have already had to submit your final exams to the exams office, I’m going to stick to preparing your students for the moment of truth (I promise I will write a post on drafting final exams early next semester).

1. Be explicit about whether or not the exam covers all the material from the class.

As some of you may know, I love guest lectures. They expose my students to leading lights in the field and give them a better glimpse of people’s different perspectives. They also provide a chance to have some really interesting Q&A sessions. But this raises the issue of whether or not guest lectures are fair game for the final exam.

In my classes, material from guest lectures never shows up on the final exam in a significant way. Everyone has a unique teaching style, and I don’t think it’s fair to force people to try to guess about what I found most important in a lecture that I didn’t write. What’s most important for our present purposes, however, is that I’m very upfront with my students about this fact. And yes, they do still come to guest lectures even so. I think part of this is that I intentionally hype guest speakers – but the other part is that they know that I come to these lectures too. Students are therefore aware that I will know if nobody shows, and they also know that I will lose my shit the next day if this is the case. This seems to act as a deterrent when it comes to truancy.

Getting back to the topic at hand, I am also upfront about whether or not I will be testing material from the whole course, or only from the midterm forward. This varies from course to course, and semester to semester, but I always let students know. What I tell my students about exams is this: “My goal is not to trip you up – it is to let you show off.” My own memories of exam anxiety are vivid enough that I figure I have a karmic duty to the universe not to be too evil.

2. Think about how your slides/presentation style matches up to your exam questions, and then communicate this to your students.

Here, I want to go back to guest lectures for a moment. I don’t test on the material presented by my guests because it’s usually delivered in such a dramatically different way from how I teach the rest of the course. The result is that students are often panicky when it comes to guest lecture material because they can’t tell what bits of the lecture to focus on. They were, after all, only in contact with the guest for an hour or an hour and a half.

How dramatically different could my lecture style really be though? Um, yeah. This is where you’re all going to think that I’m more than a little OCD. As I’ve explained in the past, I always lecture to a question. As the lecture progresses, I have between 3 and 7 slides (skeletal, I know), depending on the length of the talk. The title of each slide refers to one broad theme which I am using to answer the question, and the bullet points beneath it are particular points of evidence. Unlike a written essay, I’m not clear from the outset how all of this material will come together and I encourage student to draw their own meaning as we move along. That said, we do tie it all together when I conclude, and students are asked to decide how they would answer that initial question in a 5-10 minute discussion period.  Since we talk about historiography as part of the process, students have several ready-made answers at their disposal, or they can create their own argument.

Too structured? Alas, it gets worse. My exams very carefully reflect my lecture format. They’re usually composed of a series of short answers or IDs, and choice of essays (plus something from tutorials – often a document analysis). Essay questions come from my lecture questions, short answers are drawn from slide titles, and IDs come from those bullet points. I know, it’s a bit much right? And it’s hardly going to work for everyone, but this is how I role.  Judge me if you will. I am a huge fan of spontaneity in other aspects of life, but I can’t shake the anxiety caused by being in charge of people’s grades, so I do everything I can to give them a fighting chance.

As I said, there is absolutely no reason your lectures should be as uniformly formatted as my own. But try to figure out, in general terms, how you present material and then communicate this to your students so that they can better prepare for your exam. Part of what they’re learning in university is how to differentiate the most relevant material from the rest, and then to predict what tasks they might be assigned based on that information. When you’re trying to pinpoint your style – and how it translates to exams –you’ll also need to think about the broad themes of the course. Make sure that you’ve explicitly discussed these themes with the class, as your exam is going to emphasize your narrative arc, and the questions that you set will no doubt be shaped by it.

3. Tell them what the weighting will look like so that they know where to concentrate their efforts.

Each one of us has a different approach to exams, depending on our time constrictions and our pedagogical outlook. Most of us will mix formats: essays, short answers, IDs, document analysis, multiple choice, etc… Tell your students what formats you’re using, how many of each type of question will be present, and if there will be choice. But most importantly, tell them how much every section will be worth so that when they’re studying, they know where to focus their efforts.

Personally, I put the most weight on the essay questions. The essay section is therefore usually worth at least half the value of the exam, and I repeat this information several times as we approach doomsday. I thus encourage my students to spend most of their time studying for this type of question. This makes sense in the broader scheme of things too because the process of studying for essays simultaneously prepares students for the IDs and short answers. The down side of essays, however, is that students are faced with an enormous amount of material that they need to master.

But there is a solution to this problem as well: with essay-based exams it’s often possible to completely ignore several lectures. If I am giving smaller essays based on single-lectures, students always have a choice. If they have to answer 2 out of 4 questions, then that means they can automatically ignore at least two lectures. If the essay question is a large-scale, full-course reflection piece, the same principle actually still holds true. Since students can draw from almost any lecture in the course, they will naturally have to focus somewhere, and so they can still avoid some lectures based on what material they felt was least relevant to the course as a whole.

I also tell my students the number of points that will be awarded to each section. From there, we discuss what this means in terms of how they should manage their time. For example, if the essay section is worth 50% of their exam, and it’s a three hour exam, they should spend roughly 1.5 hours writing that section. I guess what I’m trying to say is: make sure you teach your students to study strategically.

4. Give sample questions.

This is self-explanatory. It’s not absolutely necessary, but I’ve found it really helps students to prepare. This is especially true if you didn’t give a midterm because, if this is the case, students don’t know what your tests look like. When I do my exam prep lecture, I always provide sample questions that will not be on the exam (conveniently eliminating some more study material for them as well). I use these questions to illustrate where the material is being drawn from vis-à-vis the slides, and we workshop the answer as a group.

By doing all of this, I reduce student anxiety and my own. As I said, I find it unnerving to be in control of something as important as someone’s GPA, so I want to be as fair as possible. I really do design my exams and exam prep to allow students to “show me what they’ve got.” I want each and every one of them to do well, and I give them the tools to be able to succeed. But if, after all of that, things still go wrong at the exam, I feel a little more confident that it wasn’t me. Sometimes students are a sick, having a personal crisis, are sitting my exam last, or just hated the course. This will be reflected in their grades, but at least they had a fighting chance.

My students seem to sense my level of investment in their learning, and many are grateful to have an idea of what they are walking into when they enter the exam hall. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve written some bad exams – and graded some really problematic ones – but I find that a good exam prep class helps ward off disaster.  As always, this is hardly an exhaustive list of strategies, so please leave comments below. And good luck to everyone in the exam hall!



Managing Student Emails

So, I should probably start this off by confessing that I am terrible at managing emails myself. While I have hitherto resisted the urge to link my work email to my smartphone, I am totally that person who looks at email right after she wakes up and right before she goes to bed. Most of the time, I love the leveling capacity of email, because it means that I have access to international experts who can help me with a research project and who I would never dare to pick up the phone and call. But that means that my students have the same increased access to me, and this can sometimes feel overwhelming.  And while I don’t generally like the tone of Salon’s fake syllabus, I do think that we’ve all felt like this at one time or another:

This semester, we’re going to try something different. Here is the phone number to my home, where I live with my wife and kids and, for all you know, one or more disabled elderly persons: 228-1745. If what you have to tell me about the unfairness of my grading policy is important enough to call, dial away. Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Thus, I do have a few policies regarding emails. The first is that I get 24 hours to respond to any email. I am very upfront about this on the first day of classes, and I tell my students that the same thing applies to my TAs. Oftentimes, I am much faster than this – a fact that, sadly, my students seem to pick up on very quickly – but I try to make it clear from the get-go that I will not always reply quickly and that students should plan accordingly. This rule means that I can preserve a safe space for “date night,” or make a claim longer stretches of time at conferences, during which I do not have to feel guilty about ignoring my email.


[There have been days, particularly when organizing conferences or teaching those 150-seat lectures]


Similarly, I will not answer my email after 11:00 pm the night before an assignment is due. I may or may not check my email more frequently leading up to that cutoff, but if your email isn’t in my inbox before then, I’m sorry, but I have absolutely no obligation whatsoever to read it. Since academics often perceive what they do more as a lifestyle/vocation than as a job/career, there is a tendency to be at one’s computer after this time and thus a temptation to read and answer emails as well. Whether or not I’m at my computer, however, I refuse to answer such emails on principle. I should not be expected to be there, and I am already going above and beyond by checking in as late as I do.

As for those emails which ask questions that are answered on the syllabus, I will answer them, but the reply may come in a form that not everyone likes: a stock answer with a link to the syllabus. If an email contains a question about formatting footnotes, the reply will likely be the same, but with a link to the Chicago Manuel of Style’s Quick Citation Guide instead. And finally, if the email is a question about something that its author could have found the answer to by Googling, I will be polite, even if it’s hard sometimes because I’m tired or stressed. That said, I will be grumpy and will probably also include a statement about the importance of pro-active learning.

OK, so I did once actually compose a reply that just had a link to Let Me Google That For You, but I thought better of sending it at the last moment. If we want our students to be respectful towards us, we owe them the same courtesy in return. And sometimes I forget to Google shit myself, and/or just need the reinforcement of hearing from an authority figure. So yeah, I take a deep breath and try to be professional.

If I receive emails that are disrespectful or extremely informal, I make it a policy to address all the issues contained therein, but I also indicate to the student that I find their behavior inappropriate. This can be hard to do in a tone that will not cause alarm (tone is notoriously difficult to communicate in writing), but I think it’s extremely important, so I’m willing to put in the extra time to make sure that my email reads properly and sends what I hope is the right message. People will never learn not to send such emails unless someone points out that it’s a problem, and in most cases, students have been mortified to discover that their emails were conveying the wrong message. So for their sake, as much as mine, I try to flag these issues.


[It seems obvious that this is a little much when you’re the recipient, but sometimes a stressed-out sender doesn’t think about how it will come across. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and let them know politely that their communication seems a little aggressive instead of just assuming they’re trying to bully you. I’ve also seen large fonts, and a lot of red.]


That’s pretty much it for how I approach the issue of email right now, but I’ve started to feel like perhaps I need to be even more strategic when teaching those large classes. It can be easy for email to take over one’s life, and so I’m currently toying with the idea of stealing the “email hours” concept from a friend. This would mean having set hours each day outside of which I do not check my email. Students would therefore know when to expect a response, and I would be less easily sidetracked from other work.

I also want to start using another strategy to which I was recently exposed. When I don’t yet know the answer to a question and have to do more digging, instead of telling the student that “I’ll get back to them,” I will now say “I will get back to you with more information by ______.” This helps the student relax until that time, and gives me a firm deadline to work with as well. It’s thus a good way of avoiding panicked reminder emails if you’re one of those folks (like me) who doesn’t need them. If you do need reminders, it’s probably better not to go this route and instead to write something like “if you don’t hear back from me by ______, please email me to remind me.”

Well, that’s all I have for now, but I’m sure I’m missing a ton of interesting strategies. I’d also be curious to hear how easy or hard people find it to get to “inbox 0” every day, or if this is something you even worry about at all. Thus, please leave comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

Teaching Outside of the Classroom

Since I seem to be riding a vaguely political wave as of late, I thought I’d write a piece about the various ways that educators find themselves imparting their wisdom when outside of the classroom. Well, actually, this post is really just about what I do outside the classroom. But I know for a fact that there are at least a few other people out there who do similar things, with similar goals, and I’d love to hear about these in the comments.

Anyway… I’m not talking about pedantic speeches detailing my latest research obsession while standing around at a party. Let’s face it, no one wants to hear about that – some days, not even me. I’m also not talking about acting as a de facto tour guide while travelling with my family. I hate both of these things with a passion, and while I understand that some people enjoy doing it, I just can’t go there. There are, however, other ways that I find myself acting as an unofficial pedagogue outside of the classroom. For the most part, this type of work seems to be appreciated by those who benefit from it, but undervalued by society at large. And it’s work that I think most of us who possess doctorates do a lot of.

1. Editing

This one is pretty obvious, especially to frequent visitors of my blog. I do, after all, have a tab for editorial services. But my role as an editor goes well beyond the ESL services that I charge a fee for. I have long-since been one of the “go-to” people in my circle when someone needs an extra set of eyes on a paper, or help with a cover letter, teaching statement, or grant application. In fact, I could probably start a business critiquing grant apps if I wanted to, given how many of the bloody things I have read.

As I said, I do most of this for free. This is because, as an intellectual, I consider it part of my job (even though I currently don’t have a proper academic post), and here’s why. One of the hardest parts of doing the PhD for me was dealing with the post-course work isolation and the lack of sounding boards for my own thoughts. I had to work really hard to create groups and contexts where us lonely souls could get together and swap ideas – not to mention bitch about department politics. I couldn’t develop my ideas without the help of others, so I would never deny this fundamental part of the learning process to anyone else. Very few of us are just naturally brilliant. The majority of us are just smart. And this means we have to talk things out, and have colleagues point out some initial flaws in our argument, in order to produce our best work.

My willingness to read application letters similarly stems from my commitment to peer-to-peer learning. I know it’s a competitive world out there, and that I’m supposed to be looking out for numero uno. But I’m always telling my students they can do more by learning from one another than they can ever do while sitting alone with a book. So why wouldn’t I put my money where my mouth is and share the knowledge that I possess with my own peers. Job and grant apps are a special kind of writing, and one that people aren’t always trained for. I’m lucky enough to have figured it out early, so I do what I can to help others.

I know, I know. I too have a pressing need to eat, and I shouldn’t be giving my services away for free. And I do charge for some things. But there are some things which I feel morally obligated to help others with – especially people who I call my friends – if I have the time and the knowhow to be able to do so. I feel this way because I truly believe that this is how we collectively produce knowledge.

2. Trying to write Op-eds.

OK, so I may have just LOL-ed… for real. The emphasis here is on the “trying.” I am now on attempt number three – a revised version of last week’s post – and I don’t expect to get that one published either. This is because I’m still learning not to bury the lead, to use terminology that doesn’t make normal people want to break out in hives, and to be generally topical. So far, I’m not really doing so well, but for whatever reason, I feel like I need to keep trying. If there really is value in my training, and I really do have something to offer society, I feel like I have to keep pushing to make that happen.

As part of this process, I am trying to better understand how my doctoral training has prepared me to speak on a wide variety of issues. Some things are a no-brainer, like entering the debates about alternative-academic careers or the alleged crisis in the Humanities. Other things, however, are not as immediately obvious. For example, I recently wrote a piece about how understanding history provides a different vantage point when entering the debate we are having right now in Quebec about a proposed “secular” charter of values. This is because understanding history (especially the early modern period) makes it easy to see how secularism can actually be dogmatic, given the right set of circumstances.  So yeah, it turns out that I have knowledge to share when it comes to a wide variety of subjects.

3.  Arguing about politics and/or explaining why a certain person/group/thing you hate isn’t necessarily evil.

This is closely related to the Op-ed thing, but is not exactly the same. It involves conversations that are much more informal in nature, even though they ultimately have more of an impact (seeing as those Op-eds aren’t getting published). As I’ve said so many times before, people have a hard time seeing the other side of a debate and tend to get frustrated and angry very quickly when someone else is “just wrong.” They don’t listen any better than their opponents do, and even if they’re right, this kind of approach is not likely to result in much progress.

Going back to the current debate about secularism in Quebec, I see this phenomenon at work in this context all the time. Friends and relatives in Anglo Canada are utterly dumbfounded by the fact that anyone would want to discriminate against minorities. They immediately notice that the proposed rules for what people can and can’t wear are arbitrary, and some of them even remark upon the fact that these bans will keep religious minorities out of any and all positions of authority. And they, quite rightly, get offended, after which they launch into a tirade which is almost as prejudice towards the Quebecois as the Quebec government is being towards minorities.

Quebec’s Charter is the result of a specific history, and one that involves a very rocky relationship with the Catholic Church. Many supporters of the new charter seem to be extrapolating based on this experience, and to assume that everyone should hate religion as much as they do. And then there’s the whole issue of multiculturalism vs. interculturalism, and the gaping gulf that this creates between francophone and Anglophone culture. I spend a lot of time explaining how and why these profound cultural disjunctions matter and why, if people really do want to change other people’s minds, they need to start from a respect for that difference, and move forward carefully from there.

I should confess that I do indeed do the same thing on Facebook, though often concerning less overly-political issues. This has landed me in more epic Facebook fights than I should probably admit to, but hey, it’s ended in some very interesting conversations and no one has un-friended me yet. I’m sure there are other venues where I have been using my knowledge for good – or evil, depending on your perspective. But these are the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. There’s a fine line between being a pedant and a pedagogue, at least in a public capacity, and I’m still trying to figure out where that is.

So I’m curious: who else out there is doing the same kinds of things?

Why the Humanities?

As many of you know, I’ve been engaging with the idea of becoming a “public intellectual” for quite a while now. Oftentimes this simply means trying to figure out how to write an op-ed that actually gets published; the rest of the time it means venting my spleen via epic Facebook statuses or experimenting with thoughts in a public forum like twitter or my blog. All of this started when I was launched into a fit of blinding rage – yes, I know, it seems like this happens a lot – while reading one of those cookie-cutter Margaret Wente pieces. You know the ones: irritatingly trite attacks on anyone who was stupid enough to have pursued a liberal arts degree in the first place. From reading these, I have learned that we humanists should have known better than to enroll in such useless programs and now deserve to wallow in the mire of a poverty that is of our own making. We are, apparently, obsolete.

I was brought back to this theme when someone lent me Making History: The Historian and Uses of the Past by Jorma Kalela. Reading this book unsurprisingly caused me to obsess over the value, or lack thereof, of my historical training yet again – not to mention the place of the humanities in society at large. The central question in Kalela’s book is: “Why history?” Part of the answer, of course, is that history teaches us some pretty important skills. This is an argument that I have seen rehearsed many times before. What I hadn’t previously considered, however, is the extent to which history (as a discipline) is fundamentally entangled in a much more general social project aimed at making sense of the past. As such, historians are connected to private individuals who engage in historical projects as a hobby, institutions producing public histories, and mass media constructions/abuses of the past.  We have a role to play vis-à-vis these other interpretations of history, and we need to be more cognizant of how we define it.

But the definition of our role depends, in large part, on the particular skills that we possess, so I’d like to revisit that issue for a moment. One of the other arguments that gave me pause is Kalela’s book had to do with the difference between understanding the meaning of the past and obtaining a sound knowledge of it. I’m not going to lie, it took me a minute to figure out exactly what this meant – beyond the basic postmodern tenet that there is no such thing as truth with a capital “T.”  But now that I’ve wrapped my head around it, I think there’s actually something very important to this argument, and it’s something that the current debates about the value of the humanities often miss.

In our quest to demonstrate how humanists teach critical thinking, encourage communication skills, train active citizens, and infiltrate both corporations and politics (unbeknownst to all those hard core business and sciency folks out there), we have forgotten to articulate why all of this is true. I would argue that a big part of the reason is that we challenge people constantly to seek an understanding of other human beings while simultaneously explaining why they can never actually succeed. In a nutshell: we explain why human relationships – and consequently, all social structures – are so damn difficult to navigate, and then we propose coping mechanisms. And no, I do not mean answers. I really do just mean coping mechanisms.

For whatever reason, human beings find it all too easy to fall into the trap of extrapolating based on personal experience, or assuming that everyone’s life is essentially the same as our own. This is why privilege functions the way it does and why it is invisible to those who possess it. Thus, what is hardest for us is to (a) recognize difference (b) not to be afraid of it (this is the stage where many people go awry, but not what I want to talk about today), and finally (c) try to understand how to co-exist with it. I say co-exist with it, because the truth is that we will never truly understand what it means to be that which is beyond ourselves. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to understand others; but it does mean that the best we’re going to achieve in most situations is a better knowledge of our shared difference (for some interesting musings on the idea of shared difference see the introduction of this book).

So how the hell does this relate to what I was talking about before? Well, to go back to Kalela, historians are not supposed to be looking for the ultimate meaning of the past. Sure, some of us think that’s what we’re doing, but we’re not. In reality, we’re actually just reconstructing a sound knowledge of the context in which real lived experience occurred – and in which real events took place – and then hypothesizing about what all of that means. Put another way, we seek and acknowledge difference, after which we do our best to overcome it. This involves making compromises, and these compromises let us build bridges between worlds which are extremely foreign to one another, offering a way for them to interact. Ideally, the result is the production of knowledge that is both meaningful to our present world, and also respectful to the past.

What does this mean with regards to the role of the historian, and the humanist more generally, within society at large? It means that, at least in part, our role is to teach people how to engage with difference. The other part of what we do, then, is to teach society about itself, but I would argue that these are two sides of the same coin. As a historian, I teach these things with an eye to the past, and I do it by encouraging the skills listed above (critical thought, active citizenship, etc…). That said, my role as pedagogue is much more expansive than the work I do in the classroom. Sure, I teach students. But I also try to act in an editorial capacity, and/or as a point of reference for those other venues where people engage with the past. My goal is to remind them that what they see as meaning is in fact interpretation, and to highlight difference where they see only sameness, and vice-versa.

Other disciplines in the humanities – with which I am, sadly, less well acquainted – seem to perform a similar role, even if they study different materials and sometimes use different methods. What we all have in common is the attempt to destabilize assumptions about what people “know,” inviting questions about how society can engage with something that is actually very foreign. Here’s another great example. I recently read this article about art historians and the value of teaching “deceleration.” In it, Jennifer Roberts explains how people assume that seeing is easy and objective. Really seeing, however, is a process and it’s really really obnoxiously hard. It is both subjective and time consuming, because senses that seem simple often trick us into a false sense of mastery and confidence. And so Roberts invites us to consider what else we aren’t seeing; to slow down and to think about how details reveal themselves. She challenges us to contemplate how it is that we come to understand a thing (and I would add, a person), and to really consider how we engage with it (or with them).

This is why I study and teach the humanities. I want to understand just a little bit more about how we, as human beings, function. And I want to do so by dialoguing with those around me – professional intellectuals and interested parties outside the academy alike. I want to talk about how different cultures, times, peoples, whathaveyou, have a conversation that is meaningful to (and respectful of) the difference embodied by both sides. I also want to know how individuals interact with groups, and how groups or individuals interact with things, especially technology. My insistence on the need to ask these questions makes me – and my fellow humanists – politically and socially relevant.

Why are humanists and the humanities important? Because we can explain to the western world why religion still matters to some people, even in a modern secular society – and in so doing, we can help facilitate conversations between people and groups who are notorious for speaking past one another. We are important because we can explain how and why the capitalist economy emerged in the first place, while simultaneously questioning its efficacy and/or the ideal of liberal autonomy. Because we can call society to account for making assumptions about what it “knows” to be true, and because we have trained ourselves – and will continue to train others – to take a longer, harder look at every situation which we encounter. We preserve and produce knowledge, we teach and we moderate, and we speak even if no one wants to listen at the moment. We are neither the moral guardians of society, nor its myth makers, but we do provide checks on an every-expanding civilization by asking the questions that would otherwise go unasked. I don’t know about you, but I feel like this is something that’s worth defending.