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Teaching Romanticism II: Examination

I know, I know, this isn’t Christmassy. But it is timely. And, I promise, there will be poetry – oodles of the stuff – in the new year. In fact, if you read to the end, you’ll find a gift (of sorts) waiting just for you. Back to the present post: the semester recently finished at Dundee (13 December), at which point we had an examination for the Romantic and Gothic, 1760–1830 module I outlined in my first blog in this series. I was also appointed QA and Exams Officer this academic year, which puts me on the Teaching Committee for the department (ex officio) and the Examinations Board for the School of Humanities. (In addition to checking the rubric and scope of exam papers, and assessment more broadly, I appoint and liaise with external examiners. I also make sure new and established modules are viable and fully accredited, monitor grades and other data, among other things. It is actually far more interesting than I could make it sound. It appeals to my nosy nature.) We have few exams here, particularly in the English department, but also the School at large. Intriguingly, this doesn’t seem to be a response to students’ preferences. On the contrary, the various feedback forms I have seen suggest that our students would favour a greater mixture of assessment; I suspect this is because they feel they are better at one type than another. A couple of students in my class expressly said as much: ‘Oh, I’m better in an exam situation’, one of my better students said, when I handed back a relatively disappointing essay. ‘How can I avoid dropping grades in the exam this time?’, asked another, with reference to her results in other modules. Many of my colleagues have pioneered the use of weekly journals in their modules, a topic to which I shall return in future posts. The exam component for my module makes up a hefty 50% of the final grade, along with a 3,500 word research essay (40%) and a discretionary ‘class participation’ exercise (10%). The latter might cover general participation in module seminars or, more commonly, individual presentations. In 2014–15, I’ll be replacing the class participation exercise with a weekly journal (pushed up to 20–30%), but I’ll get to that in future blogs.


So, to the Romantic and Gothic exam. The rubric: it is a three-hour paper, which the students see precisely one week in advance on Blackboard. They have a choice of at least ten questions (twelve this year) and must answer two. Each essay is comparative, and they must avoid reusing the same author here and in their other assessment. They bring their lightly annotated texts, which are checked by me or the assistant invigilators. Often I am the senior invigilator in the exam hall so I’ll spend a lot of the time doing paperwork and checking, and re-checking, the rather lengthy invigilation booklet, just to be sure I haven’t made a horrendous boo-boo and thereby messed up a student’s work. Fortunately, this time, there are very few exams taking place (aside from ours, we have two from Law and one from Land Economy), so I can focus on the Romantic and Gothic exam. To date we haven’t had to take anyone’s books away from them, though there have been too many bushy post-it notes for the other invigilators’ tastes. Pens down. We’re getting into too much detail, so let’s get to the exam paper itself. You want to hear about which questions were most popular and which texts they used, don’t you? All in good time.

mpt-northangerI actually wrote the first draft of the exam paper early on in the semester, before the module began. Seems a little odd, perhaps even needlessly organized, doesn’t it? Well, allow me to explain. We have to send the exam paper to Registry (the people who crunch the results and deal with matriculation, and the like) way in advance of the so-called examination diet (i.e. period). So that would put me at halfway through the semester. We also have to send the paper to at least one of the external examiners for approval. We’re lucky to have three exceptional (i.e. highly patient and thoughtful) examiners, all of whom can turn around such paperwork in less than a week, and often the same day. I also co-teach Romantic and Gothic with my colleague Nicole Devarenne, who takes one of the seminar groups. She, too, always gives me thoughtful, and timely, feedback on the assessments. Even so, if we factor in Registry and the externals, that puts us in the first third of the semester. But I actually find it really useful to write the exam paper so early in the semester because it helps me to write the lectures and plan the seminars. It’s that old chestnut that doesn’t come easily to me: you need to know where you’re going. And it’s true, if a little teleological, when writing papers (and setting essay questions on different topics, along the way). Of course, you can (and should) tailor questions as the semester progresses. I’m frequently surprised by the direction modules take in light of seminar discussion; but perhaps I should be more surprised by why I should find that surprising. (Topic for a future blog post: how laissez-faire should a seminar or tutorial be?

Europe_a_Prophecy_copy_K_plate_01 So, finally, here is a list of my exam questions:

1. Examine the ways in which writers on this module celebrate or critique The Byronic Hero.
2. “Many great novels concern themselves with characters whose place in society is not fixed or assured” (Tony Tanner). Discuss with reference to at least two works (novels, drama or poetry) studied on this module.
3. Discuss the depiction of male sexuality in at least two works studied on this module.
4. Examine the depiction and role of narrators in at least two ballads studied on this module.
5. “Is it not a fundamental error to consider children as innocent beings, whose little weaknesses may perhaps want some correction, rather than as beings who bring into the world a corrupt nature and evil dispositions, which it should be the great end of education to rectify?” (Hannah More). Examine the depiction of children or childhood with reference to at least two works studied on this module.
6. Examine the depiction of readers or reading with reference to at least two works studied on this module.
7. “The fallen angel becomes a malignant devil” (Frankenstein). Consider this statement with reference to at least two works studied on this module.
8. Examine the depiction of, and imagery associated with, motherhood in at least two works studied on this module.
9. “Lightning is his slave” (Byron). Examine the relationship between humanity and nature with reference to at least two works studied on this module.
10. “…not as the other traveller seemed to be, a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island, but a European” (Frankenstein). Explore the depiction of racial or national difference in at least two works studied on this module.
11. “My spirit walked not with the souls of men, / Nor look’d upon the earth with human eyes” (Byron). Explore the issue of dehumanisation in at least two works studied on this module.
12. “I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (Keats). Consider this statement with reference to at least two works studied on this module.

tumblr_lpyfyajaF81qd9m9xo1_1280 Question 6 was very popular, and most used Northanger Abbey and Frankenstein for this one. Question 4, on the ballads, was surprisingly popular, too. No one touched question 7, my personal favourite. Walpole, Radcliffe, Lewis, the Shelleys, Keats, Byron and Smith were by far the most popular authors. Equiano fell by the wayside, largely because many students used Interesting Narrative in their essay. One of the trickier challenges is to write questions that don’t allow, let alone necessitate, overlap either within the exam or with the essay. It’s also increasingly difficult to write questions for which there aren’t sort-of pre-fab answers available through various nefarious websites. But my questions worked well: we received a handsome number of decent and highly original essays in response. So I give these questions to you, free of charge, because it’s Christmas. I know, I know, you’d prefer poetry or socks. Or poetic socks. Maybe next year.

Merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

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