Thursday, May 5, 2016

I'm Thirsty for Oral. A Big Thirsty From Prof. Chiltepin.

Yesterday I gave oral exams all day for one of my ethics classes. The tally:
  • On being asked how they determine if an action is right or wrong, fourteen students informed me that everyone has their own opinion. Then they looked at me, waiting for me to move on to the next question. That was their whole answer.
  • Two separate students agreed that the Nazis weren't that bad, because they thought they were doing the right thing. We never even talked about the Nazis in this class, but maybe I need to figure out some way of fitting them in. The second one, I just stared at her and blinked, repeatedly. I didn't even hide my contempt. Then I said "Six million Jews were killed in concentration camps." Then blinked some more.
  • Every single student used "I just feel that . . . " to mean "I think that . . . " I hate that shit.
  • Only about half the students mentioned anything we read. Many more students mentioned the movie we watched in class. 
  • One student picked his nose. Then he looked at the result. Then he did it again.
  • One student did her nails. I'm not shitting. This happened. It was worse than the nose-picker. At least that might have been unconscious.
  • One student ate lunch, a large and greasy sandwich out of a styrofoam container. During an oral exam. A ten minute oral exam. Like he couldn't wait?
  • Two students had their phones go off during the exam. Neither of them answered it, at least, and both apologized.
  • About fifteen students did fine, however, and ended up with very high and admittedly gentle grades. But it's the ones that horrify who stick with you.
Q: Oral exams. Do you give them? How do you endure the face-to-face feckless stupidity?


  1. The only oral exams I give are with my graduate students and it's just the normal part of discussing research. They know the look I give them when they've said something really dumb. I just respond, "You should read chapter 4 in our gen chem book then let me know if you want to stick with that answer."

  2. At least they showed up. My single snowflakiest moment as an undergrad (and I had some impressive ones) came when one of my professors announced, two weeks from the end of class, that our entire course grade would be based on a single final oral exam. In the country where I was studying abroad at the time, this was a fairly common practice; I panicked at the thought of taking an oral exam in the target language, decided it was an outrage, and walked out of the class, never to return. And then I capped it off by writing a grumpy letter to the director of the study abroad program complaining that the professor was a condescending jerk who laughed at us when we made mistakes with the language, and that he hadn't warned us about the oral exam thing on the syllabus. (In my defense, both of those things were actually true, and I didn't complain about the F I received in the course -- but I still cringe whenever I think about it, even more so after I realized that study abroad is so cash-driven that the director might have taken the complaint of a nineteen-year-old idiot seriously, and that this all happened in a country with a 20% unemployment rate.)

    Why no, I don't give oral exams. I'd be too worried about karma!

  3. We can only give oral exams if we have a colleague sit through them with us to make sure we don't discriminate. So if I did, I'd have to sit through oral exams for them, and that would take twice as much time, so no, I never do.

    1. That's a profoundly stupid policy. Do you also need a colleague to lean over your shoulder and check your grading? Ugh. Clearly a policy made by someone who hasn't seen the inside of a classroom.

    2. Paper exams can be re-graded or looked over by the same prof or another party. When you have your first student complaint about a one-on-one oral exam from a "good student" and the dean thinks a do-over is in order "just in case something had gone wrong the first time", it is comforting to have another voice to call him on his bullshit.

    3. Of course, I've been a panelist on countless oral thesis defenses, which is a bit different from an oral exam for a "regular" course in that generally, the committee won't even agree to hold the defense unless the student is ready to defend. I find it liberating that two or more colleagues are also on the committee to smack me if I'm being too much of an asshole. We've never had a student contest a committee decision.

  4. I used to do it years ago but the students I have now have no experience speaking and thinking extemporaneously. And I am not just being blindly dismissive. Maybe a Twitter exam? That and Snapchat. I can't get 2 sentences out of them in class so I've stopped trying. I used to love that kind of test and it always helped separate great from good students.

  5. The question has two parts, so here are my two answers:

    1) I cant


    2) I cant.

  6. The Nazi thing is really troubling, and I'm finding it even more troubling that I can't think of a way to counter it without sounding much more conservative than I am, since all the comments I want to write make some reference to fundamental/shared human values (and my own personal reasons for objecting would be similar to Dietrich Bonhoeffer's -- i.e. rooted in Christian faith -- though I doubt I would have his courage under the circumstances. Still, I don't think it requires religious faith of some kind to be able to answer that question, and of course some Nazis at least claimed to be acting out of, or at least in accordance with, Christian faith). I suppose I could invoke the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though. Then the arch-conservatives will think I'm a proponent of one world government or some such. It does seem to me that pretty much any well-thought-out ethical system is going to come down on the side of condemning the Holocaust.

    In one way, I suspect the students are right -- at least some Nazis probably thought what they were doing was all right, or even virtuous. To my mind, that doesn't make them blameless, just a very scary example of how humans can go wrong, and good reason to examine our own motives and thinking very, very carefully.

    In an exam, I think I'd be tempted to ask a student "would [fill in ethicist whose work you read] think this action was right or wrong? why?" thus eliminating the relativistic answers and inviting mention of the readings with one stone. But I have no illusions that that would be a panacea, and I'm sure there's a reason you asked the question as you did.

    I don't think I've ever given an oral exam, and the last one I took (unless you count my dissertation defense) was in high school French.


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