I could be bounded in a nutshell

…and count myself a king of infinite space.


I’ve been feeling a lot of resistance to (and getting some thoughtful pushback against) my suggestion that only a return to on-site examination will be able to preserve the integrity of written exams in higher education in the coming age of artificial intelligence. In particular, people don’t seem to like the idea of requiring students to produce roughly a thousand words in response to a given prompt in three hours at the end of a semester. As I understand it, they would prefer to require students to put together a portfolio of work done, both at home and in class, throughout the semester. I also get the sense that many of the people who express displeasure at my idea would prefer not to give grades at all, while I sometimes, when I’m feeling bold, go so far as to suggest grading on a curve. (This is not an option in Denmark, where it is literally against the law.) I think we all agree that students should get as much feedback on their writing as possible as part of their instruction. The point of contention is how (and, like I say, sometimes whether) a grade should be assigned at the end.

In my last post, I tried to imagine a course on Hamlet in which the final grade was based solely on four in-class essays, though students would also write four take-home essays for which they would be given an indicative grade to gauge their performance. I’ve previously described what I think of as the ideal exam (a 3-hour written exam followed immediately by a 30-minute oral examination). In all cases, the important thing is to develop a prompt that a student who has taken your course should be able answer intelligently given three hours and a set of materials you have selected for them. That is, you should be able to imagine a three-hour performance of the competence that you had been trying to inculcate all semester. If you cannot imagine something a student of yours should have become good at doing for three hours, nor how you would judge how well they have done it if they do it, I fear that your learning objectives are mere abstractions.

In order to understand what I mean, consider another classic set-up for a course on Shakespearean tragedy. As a quick aside, it recently occurred to me that Shakespeare is a great example precisely because his profound influence on the English language means that knowledge of his work is literally “baked in” to the parameters of large language models like OpenAI’s GPT. (Just try prompting ChatGPT with the question, “To be or not to be?”) That means Shakespeare is simultaneously the most important author to teach English majors and easiest to fake knowledge of using artificial intelligence. Anyway, imagine a course in which students are to read three tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, as well as various theories of Shakespearean tragedy. We can, again, imagine a 16-week course, here with 4 weeks devoted to each play bookended by 2 x 2 weeks devoted to general ideas. You can assign whatever homework and in-class activities you like throughout the semester; I want to focus on what happens at the end.

After the last class, the students are given a week or two to prepare for the final exam, which consists of a prompt that relates to one of the three plays. Students may use whatever theories they like from the course to frame their arguments. They are given three hours to write up to a thousand words. (Ideally, they would then also defend their writing orally. But this is not necessary for the point I’m making here.) It seems natural — but I’ll leave it up to you — to give them the text of the play they will be writing about. You may also let them have access to the theoretical literature that you discussed in class so that they can quote from it. I would not, however, let them bring notes from their reading or (for the same reason) their own copies of the texts. You want to know what their minds and bodies are capable of in direct confrontation with the materials. You don’t want to give them the challenge of putting together a binder full of good original prose about each play and each theory that they can then transcribe in the examination room. After all, that binder can be filled with paragraphs written by an AI.

To me it seems obvious that these conditions would give students ample opportunity to demonstrate their familiarity with Shakespeare’s plays and their understanding of tragedy. (If you don’t think these are important things to know about, that’s fine; imagine another course, other texts, other issues.) Since the students would not know in advance which play would be assigned, we can assume (though it’s a game of probabilities, of course) that they know the other two plays as well as the one they happen to be examined in. And since the student knows what the task is in advance, we can assume that they’ve gotten themselves and their prose into shape and are performing as writers “at the top of their game”. In part, we testing them on their ability to pull off this performance. I think we can rest assured that if they do well here, they are capable of many other things.

That’s really the thing that I think my critics underestimate. Hamlet complained that Denmark was a prison but admitted that it was, to a certain extent, all his mind (“there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”). Were it not for his disturbing dreams, even “bounded in a nutshell” he would “count [himself] a king of infinite space”. For my part, I’m fond of quoting Ezra Pound’s ideas on form; “think of it as center around which, not a box within which,” he said. We are not confining our students to the examination room for three hours, nor limiting them to a thousand words. We are, I would argue, affording them an opportunity to exercise their knowledge and imagination, to articulate the prose of their world. Just as a trained musician who is given a score and an afternoon can offer a competent interpretation, or a skilled carpenter can turn a pile of wood into a sturdy table in a few hours, so too can a learned scholar produce an interesting analysis of a work of literature in three hours. Given only half a day, it may not be their “best work”. But knowing what the terms were, we can certainly use the result to judge their abilities.

At about this point, I imagine, you are thinking about how to accommodate their disabilities. That’s the topic of my next post…

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