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The Mid-Term Exam
I include an outline of what to expect on the mid-term exam, as well as links to older versions of the test, so that there will be no surprises come mid-term time this semester. Also, this page should give you a sense of what reading strategies are prioritized in this course, so it should be useful well before the time comes to study for this exam.
Purpose and Goals
Periodically throughout the semester we will step back from readings of individual works to a consideration of how they relate to each other. The mid-term exam is designed to promote such consideration, both in your preparation for the exam and during the exam itself. It tests your ability to recall, recognize, contextualize, analyze, abstract from, and synthesize key moments and issues in the texts we've read thus far in the semester. It provides you with the opportunity to focus on the texts and problems that have interested you most in the semester; rather than identifying what you don't know, it is structured to give you a chance to show what you do know and have thought most carefully about.
The larger purpose of the exam is to help you become more conscious of what interpretive moves you make when you read a text, to practice and get feedback on moves that you may not normally make, and to give you an opportunity to add some interpretive skills to your critical repertoire. When you learn any activity, it helps to practice the things that you will do most often, so that they become so natural to you they become part of your "muscle memory"; think back to when you first learned to play a sport or learned to drive (particularly on a vehicle with manual transmission!). Learning to read actively and critically is exactly the same kind of process: it helps if you add some interpretive skills to your "mental muscle memory," so to speak. Sometimes, this can be as simple as becoming aware of what you already do when you read a text; other times, this can be as difficult as learning to make a lefty layup is for a righty, or learning to hit a golf ball out of a sand trap is for anyone who can stand to play the game. Throughout this course, you should be striving to become a more self-conscious reader, to become aware of what interpretive moves you make when you read, and to push yourself to move beyond reading comprehension and appreciation, toward a "critical literacy." This exam is one of the best ways of demonstrating the importance and the difficulty of doing this.
The exam will consist of three sections:
- Part I: Passage Identifications (roughly 15 minutes; worth roughly 25% of your grade): You will be asked to identify the author and title of a given short excerpt from several works that we've read to date. You will have to identify something on the order of twelve out of fifteen passages, with partial credit (if you can't remember exact names, good descriptions will be rewarded) and bonus points (for additional identifications) awarded. Passages chosen for identification will be as obviously significant and distinctive as possible; there will be no "trick" passages.
- Part II: Interpretive Skills (roughly 65 minutes; worth roughly 50% of your grade): You will be asked to write on two passages that you identified in the previous part of the exam and analyze them in the following three ways: a) close reading (discuss what a passage means and how it means); b) relating part to whole (discuss how a passage contributes to the meaning of the work from which it comes); and c) comparison/contrast (identify a major theme or issue or problem in a given passage and compare/contrast the treatment of it in that and one other text from the course).
- Part III: Interpretive Essay (take-home essay; worth roughly 30% of your grade): You will be asked to write an interpretive essay in which you respond to one of several integrative questions by drawing on at least three texts we've read so far. This short essay will be due the day of the exam. Your options will be posted to the web site (see below for link) on the afternoon of Thursday, September 30.
By breaking up the complicated act of reading into a small set of discrete skills, Part II of the exam identifies and highlights a few of the things readers do when they try to make sense of an individual passage, the larger work, and its relation to other texts they have read. Preparing for this portion of the exam should give you the opportunity both to practice the skills being tested, and to consider how practicing them compares to what you usually do when reading.
Advice for Studying
In reviewing for this exam, you should be looking for significant connections and contrasts between the texts that we've read in the first section of the course. Another way to proceed while reviewing is to identify major issues or topics in an individual work, and, for each issue/topic, to consider one or more other works that also treat it. Another way to proceed is to try to identify "major" passages in each work and practice the interpretive skills being tested on those passages so you learn by experience and maybe even predict what passages I'll include in the exam.
Your goal while reviewing should be not only to brainstorm possible avenues of comparison and contrast, but also to consider the meaning and significance of the similarities and differences among the works we've read this semester to date. This will prepare you for the latter two sections of the exam. I can't recommend highly enough that you study in groups and use the listserv to pass along ideas and approaches, particularly when it comes to brainstorming possible axes of comparison and strategies for doing the different types of tasks that the test requires. I will be reading the listserv and chiming in when necessary.
Remember that when studying for any exam, you should figure out precisely what skills are being tested and practice those specific skills. You should also make sure you understand what is required of you in each part of the exam and what criteria you'll be judged on well before taking the test, so that you don't have to waste time during the exam figuring out what you're supposed to be doing.
Here's some specific advice on preparing for each part of the exam. See also THIS semester's frequently asked questions page and, for a sense of common pitfalls and ways of excelling on the test, my comments on my former students' performance on last semester's and last year's mid-term exams. Please refer back to these pages as you are preparing for the exam; the more carefully you study, the more useful this page and its links will be to you.
- Part I: When preparing for this part of the exam, don't feel that you have to memorize every word of every story. Instead, focus on 1) memorizing the correct spelling of all the authors' names and the correct spelling of the titles of their works (points will be taken off for misspellings); 2) memorizing names and places that would help you identify a given work; 3) recognizing the "style" or "signature" of a given author; 4) identifying "major" passages in each of the works (i.e., predicting what passages I'll ask you to identify!). Even if you don't recall exactly who wrote a given passage, that is, you can still narrow down the possibilities and make an educated guess based on your recognition of identifying features of the prose.
- Part II: When preparing for this part of the exam, it's best to actually practice writing the mini-essays that you'll have to write during the exam. Take a given passage from a work you know well and do a "close reading" of it; then, write on how it contributes to the meaning of the larger work; finally, take an issue or problem or theme or conflict or process or idea or situation prevalent in the specific passage and compare/contrast how a different work deals with or uses that same feature. Then do it for a different passage in the same work. Then for passages from works you know less well. You have to be able to write a good mini-essay on each of these skills in 15-25 minutes during the exam, so practice before-hand is key. Here's more on what doing each of these skills well entails:
- Close Reading: Coming out of this course, you should be able to take any chunk of text and do a "close reading" of it. The goal of such a reading is to make as explicit as possible what is implicit in the language of the passage. In particular, you should be looking for all the kinds of indirect, oblique, figurative uses of language at play in the passage--similes, metaphors, symbols, ironies--and for nuances of tone and connotation. Another way of thinking about this kind of reading is to identify not just what the passage means, but how it means--what work do the literary techniques and narrative strategies accomplish? what kind of experience does the reader have in making sense of the passage? Your task in this part of the exam is to explain (or "explicate") as fully as you can what is happening in the passage in question. Try to explain, in other words, what is puzzling or subtle about the passage.
- Part/Whole: Doing this mini-essay well requires you to be highly confident that you recall from where in a work a given passage has been excerpted, because your job here is to relate what happens in the passage to the work as a whole. You can think about this in several ways: 1) what is the "context" of this passage? (what do we need to know to make sense of the passage? does it refer back to an earlier passage or anticipate a later passage? what readerly expectations does it set up or frustrate?); 2) what is the "function" of this passage? (does it introduce a character or problem or image, reveal something about a character or relationship, resolve a conflict, or raise/develop an issue, theme, or motif [among other possibilities]?); 3) how does this passage make me understand the work differently? Your task in this part of the exam is to identify as specifically as possible what this passage contributes to your understanding of the work as a whole, how it relates to larger patterns of meaning in the work.
- Comparison/Contrast: This should be the easiest of the three mini-essays; all you have to do is identify an issue or problem that is being addressed in a given passage, think of a different work from this course that also deals with that issue or problem, and discuss the similarities and the differences between the way the issue or problem is dealt with in the passage and the way it is dealt with in the related text. The first step is to choose an axis of comparison by abstracting from the passage some general/conceptual/abstract topic, issue, idea, process, conflict, problem, or situation. Some examples of such axes, such bridges: gender, class, sexuality, religion, family, cultural difference, injustice, prejudice, responsibility, mourning, revenge, the "skeptical scholar" or "well-intentioned but misinformed government official," and so on (and on). The next step is to choose another text that also deals with that abstraction. Then write a mini-essay in which you compare and contrast the ways the two texts deal with that abstraction. Adequate answers will list significant similarities and differences, but the best mini-essays will identify what is distinctive about the treatment of an issue or problem in both the passage and the related text and will discuss the significance of the similarities and differences discovered. This could be done in terms of authorial intent, effect on the reader, or generalizations about cultural or historical norms, among other things. The key is to come to some conclusion (however tentative) about what difference the differences in the treatment of a given issue make.
- Part III: All the questions on this part of the exam will be relatively open-ended (with no obvious or uncontested "right" answer for them), so what will distinguish better essays from worse ones here will be the extent to which you are able to present a persuasive rationale/justification for your answer to the particular question you choose. The better you can explain why you believe what you believe and why somebody else should agree with you, the better your essay will be.
Each section is weighted only "roughly" for several reasons. First, I want some discretion in assigning your letter grade, in part to reward exceptional performance on a given section of the exam, and in part to reward treatment of a wide range of texts and topics in the exam as a whole. Second, although the structure of the exam is relatively fixed, the relative importance of each section is open to negotiation. You may note on your exam how much time you put into each section and how you think each section should be weighted. You may also raise issues about the structure and weighting of the exam on the listserv or with me personally before the exam.
We will spend some time reviewing for the exam during the week before it will be given. We will focus on such issues as how to recognize a given author's literary "signature," how to produce a close reading, how to compare and contrast texts, how to use texts as evidence in making a larger argument, and how to manage time during the exam. I will also be available during office hours to meet with groups of students to discuss specific issues.
Take advantage of the experience of writing a critical response essay and preparing for the exam to help integrate and reflect on the texts we've read thus far in the course. Good luck on the exam, and please don't hesitate to raise any and all issues and questions you may have before the exam.
The Exam Itself
Click here for a preview of THIS semester's mid-term exam, including the four take-home essay options.
Comments on the Exam
Click here for some comments on patterns I saw in your exams.
M A I N * N E W S * T O P I C S * L I N K S * R E S E R V E S
EN 209: Novels and Tales, Fall 1999
Created: 8/21/99, 3:40 pm
Last modified: 10/15/99, 10:32 am