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The Mid-Term Exam: Frequently Asked Questions

These are questions about the mid-term exam that students in previous semesters asked. Feel free to ask your own!


Q: If a student does not finish with the in-class part will they be able to stay longer or will you just take off for things being incomplete?
A: I will be there a few minutes early and you can stay for a few minutes later, but once that time is done, the in-class part of the test is done for you, and you will be penalized for incompleteness.

Q: Will you take into consideration that some people, like myself crack under pressure when taking tests? Especially essay tests. WRITERS BLOCK!
A: Yes on Part II; no on Part III (b/c it's a take-home). Writer's block will still get you a bad grade on Part II, but in the past when this happened I have given one or two people another chance to do the Part II skills in a slightly more open time situation.
Remember that the way to conquer (or at least survive!) test anxiety is to be clear before stepping into the test situation about what you are supposed to do and and how it will be evaluated, as well as to practice doing the skills that are going to be tested ahead of time. A test that requires you to think on your feet is intrinsically more difficult than one that requires you to regurgitate information, and you have to study for them differently. You can't cram the night before for this test. The better you plan your strategy for getting ready for the exam and better you execute it, the better your chances of acing the exam are.
Now, in the event that you don't do as well as you'd like on the exam or as well as you're capable of doing (like me shooting 11 shots worse the day of the golf tournament than the day before it last summer!), you're going to have to live with the consequences, draw some lessons from the experience of preparing for and taking the exam, and do better in other aspects of the course, particularly in your papers (each of which counts about as much to your final grade as the exam). But I'm not going to make the assumption that what you do on the mid-term exam is going to be your best work, or that how well you do on the exam is any indication of your potential. This is not that kind of exam. It's more a wake-up call for those who need it and a way of rewarding those who have been reading steadily and thinking about what they've read and what we've discussed in class. It's a way for you to see as clearly as possible what some of the interpretive strategies I want you to be trying out are, for you to see what the central questions of this opening unit of the course have been, and for you to experience how difficult but also how productive some of them can be. You'll get many chances after the exam--in your reading responses, discussion questions, and essays--to go back to these things and develop your skills further, and your final grade in part will be based on how much you improve in the second half of the course.
So take the test seriously and start studying early, but don't freak out about it or turn it into something more difficult than it really is. Good preparation should give you the confidence to deal with whatever test anxiety ghosts try to haunt you during the exam!

Q: Does the material that we need to know for the test include all of the short stories that we've read?
A: You got it. It also includes non-short stories like Tracks, Hamlet (only Act I, though), and "Shakespeare in the Bush."

Q: How much will spelling count on the mid-term?
A: It can only hurt you on Part I, where you get partial credit taken off for misspellings. Since Part III is a take-home and not under the time pressures of Part II, I will be less forgiving of spelling errors on Part III than Part II (where anything goes). Just don't have so many that it looks like you rushed it out Sunday night!

Q: How many points are part two and part three each worth? Is there more weight on the in-class than the take home essay or is it 50/50? How many points are each section of the exam worth?
A: Go back to the mid-term page or the virtual exam page for the answers to these questions!

Part I

Q: For each passage [in Part I], what do we have to identify for each?
A: Just the author and title. See the following two questions for elaboration.

Q: Explain what will be considered extra credit on the exam. Is there going to be any other extra credit other than in part I?
A: In Part I, you only have to identify 7 of the 11 passages. Any above that # that you identify correctly, you'll get some extra credit. Also, if you say what story in One More Story a passage came from, you'll get extra credit. No other extra credit than this on the exam.

Q: About how long will the passages be that we have to identify?
A: Anywhere between a sentence and a paragraph (more likely closer to the latter than the former).

Q: Could you give us some clues how to recognize a given author's "signature"?
A: Such things as length, complexity, and structure of sentences, vocabulary, typical imagery, tendency to rely on dialogue or description, characters' names, place names, and so on.... Think about it: would you really have any difficulty distinguishing DuWayne Bowen's style from Henry James's? Well, think about what you notice about each writer's style that makes each distinctive and go through a similar process for the other writers we've read thus far. You should also be on the lookout for writers who have similar "signatures" or subject matters, and come up with ways to differentiate representative passages from their works.

Part II

Q: Are the subjects that we write about for part two taken from the excerpts from part one?
A: Yup!

Q: Could you please describe how exactly to do a good close reading? I feel like when I do close reading I am just restating the obvious. How can I narrow things down a little more? Are there specific things I could talk about?
A: See advice elsewhere on this site for other, related answers to this question. But the basic idea is that you "explain what is happening in the passage"--both in terms of the language of the passage itself and in terms of the meaning of that language. You should be on the lookout for specific literary devices and techniques in the passage and be able to explain how they contribute to the meaning of the passage, taken in (relative) isolation. If at times you need to refer to other moments in the text or draw on your knowledge of the rest of the text, that's ok, but don't let these moments take your focus away from the meaning of, and play of language in, the passage itself. One final note: this skill is not centrally about reading comprehension (although that's still an important skill); it's about literary interpretation: often more than one thing is going on at the same time in a passage, so you should strive to discuss as many interpretations of the passage as possible, within time contraints, of course. For further advice, see my comments on my former students' performance on last semester's, last spring's, and the previous fall's exams.

Q: I don't understand relating a passage to a whole, for part 2.
A: See the advice elsewhere on this site for other, related answers to this question. But the basic idea is that you "explain the ways in which this passage contributes to the meaning of the larger work." Often, a passage will relate to the work from which it comes in several ways: it could reveal something about a character and/or narrator (or even an author's intentions), provide a variation on a major image pattern in the work, introduce or resolve a conflict, work as a kind of turning point in the work, allude or respond to another literary or other work, pose a question or issue to the reader, and so on. One way to think about this skill is to consider the function (or role) of the passage: what work does it do? what does the author accomplish by including it? what effect does it have (or is it meant to have) on the reader? You may find yourself using some of the techniques of close reading to help you generate your part-whole analysis, which is fine, so long as your emphasis is on showing how specific elements of the passage relate to other parts of the text and contribute to the larger meaning of the text as a whole, rather than focusing on the text itself, to the relative exclusion of the rest of the text (which is what a close reading is all about). One final note: it's good to be specific about how the passage contributes to the meaning of the larger work, and it's also good to cover as much of a range of ways it contributes as possible, within the time constraints, of course. For further advice, see my comments on my former students' performance on last semester's, last spring's, and the previous fall's exams.

Q: Is it all right for us to mention a close-reading aspect of the passage in relating a part to the whole?
A: Yes, as long as the focus is on the latter. The same goes if you reverse the question: you might find you have to mention a part-whole aspect in order to make your close reading better, but the emphasis of the essay should be on close reading. As you're doing Part I, be thinking about which passages would be easiest/most productive to write on and note which passages match up best with which skills.

Q: I'm not too sure how to choose a passage. What are good criteria to look for when choosing a passage?
A: For a close reading, a good passage to choose would most likely have lots of figurative language and other literary devices in it (more "Achilles is a lion" than "See spot run," if you catch my drift). For a part-whole analysis, you should choose a passage from a work you know well; ideally, you should know what part of the work it comes from and be able to talk about what makes the passage important or significant.

Q: Is it appropriate to give your personal opinion of the passage in a close reading?
A: To an extent, yes. In a sense, anyone's interpretation of a passage--for that matter, even a paraphrase or summary of a passage--is based on one's personal opinion, in the sense that one is selecting what aspects of the passage to emphasize and making personal choices about how to put what's going on in the passage in one's own words. But to an extent, no. The "new critics," who pioneered this technique of close reading, stressed that this sort of literary criticism was "objective," in the sense that a reader's personal opinions about the meaning/subject matter/style of presentation were irrelevant to understanding what that meaning was and how it is being conveyed. Other critics would come to question the objectivity of close reading (the first couple of sentences in this answer show their influence), but for the purposes of this exam, your goal should be to be as much of a "new critic" as possible.

Q: You never really know if you are interpreting correctly when doing a close reading. How do you know if you're thinking the same way the author is?
A: What I like about this question is the assumption embedded in it that "correct interpretation" is defined by "authorial intention." But the funny thing about close reading is it's entirely possible for you to notice certain things happening in the passage that the author never intended to have happen--or never realized before were happening--in the passage. The nice thing about the new critics' notion of "objectivity" is that the author's intentions become as irrelevant as the reader's opinions when it comes to close reading. Once a sentence is written, the author becomes just another interpreter of its meaning; the key is the writing itself. This is a controversial notion among literary critics (for instance, E.D. Hirsch, for instance, is famous for arguing that the assumption I identified in the first sentence above is right), but it's one that I want you for the purposes of this exam to accept. So don't worry about authorial intention when doing a close reading--if you wish to address it, you should do so in the part-whole analysis and/or comparison-contrast. (Another version of the assumptions of this question reads: "I was just wondering if we should concentrate on how/why the author has put in a certain passage or what the passage means to me? Or both?" A new critic's answer to this question would be "neither"--such a critic would point out that the interpretation of written language is what comes between the work of identifying an author's intentions and a reader's responses. For the purposes of this part of the exam, be as "new critical" as possible!)

Q: Around how long are these normally? Does length matter?
A: As they say, it's what you do with it, eh? Seriously, though, they range between a paragraph and the front and back of a piece of paper--it depends on how quickly you notice things, how many things you notice, and how fast you write. With more practice, you'll become more efficient at doing these things. My rule of thumb is: write as much as you can write without repeating yourself. You might find that taking notes in the margins of the passages you want to analyze is time well spent--that is, before writing on any one interpretive skill, you might do some brainstorming on each of the passages you want to focus on, so you have a broad sense of the range of things you want to start writing about for each skill. I find that underlining and circling significant words or phrases in a passage helps remind me what to focus on or be sure to mention in my written paragraphs. Doing this helps me notice patterns in the passage itself that could be helpful for the interpretive skill I happen to be working on. The key is to find out through practice what works best for you.

Part III

Q: Is there any specific length on the part III take-home part or is it just right until you get your point across? Are essays graded mostly on content or is the quality of the paper just as important (or more important)?
A: As with any essay, the point is to get your point across as effectively and persuasively as possible. Your point should, of course, make sense, but it's less important to focus on getting the "right answer" than to focus on justifying, explaining, and persuading your readers of the plausibility of that answer. So in general the length is dependent on how complicated your point is.
As for the content/quality distinction, I'm not quite sure what that means, but let me answer it as best as I can. If by content you mean "how well you justify/explain/persuade your point," then yes, content will count over the essay's quality (which I take to mean how beautifully written and organized it is, with proper grammar and no typos or spelling errors). But do you see how quality is already wrapped up in this notion of content? ("how well..."). So don't think of my grading this essay as going through it to extract the nuggets of ideas; think of it as grading both for the coherence and validity of your main point and for how well you are able to back it up. Grammar and spelling will count much less than your having an argument and organizing it well, so that it's easy to focus on your justification and explanation of your main point. OK?

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EN 209: Novels and Tales, Spring 2000
Created: 1/27/00, 11:46 am
Last modified: 3/2/00, 5:24 pm