Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Avoiding Exam Disasters

So now that I've been teaching for a while, it's become clear that certain negative patterns exist in regard to how students approach exam questions, especially essay questions.  So, in order to prevent these patterns from further perpetuating, here are some pointers.  It's not a complete recipe for exam success (you still have to study like your life depends on it and write lucidly and correctly), but it'll help.  In no particular order...

  1. Answer the question, not the question you've imagined based on the keywords that you’ve picked out of a question that you haven't read thoroughly.
  2. Make an outline.  Do bullet points.  Whatever method works for you, use it.  It'll not only help you organize your thoughts, but will keep you on track when you're writing.  They call it the fog of war because nobody can see clearly.  Same thing happens during exams.  An outline will help keep things tidy.
  3. Unless prompted to do so, avoid first-person assertions. The question is not about your opinions, beliefs, or feelings. This is not the time to tell me that you think Duchamp is a fraud or the Sistine Chapel is cooler than the School of Athens.  We can talk about that at some other time.  The exam is for proving what you know, not dissuading me from what I already believe.
  4. Talk about the work, not around it.  Talk about all the works you are given.  Or, talk about the required number of works.  If you do less, expect a lesser grade.
  5. If you make an assertion, back it up with specific evidence from a work of art.  The work is the evidence.  If you can't prove it using the work, think about whether or not it can be proven at all.
  6. Rhetorical questions are useless. Actual answers are useful.
  7. Description is never a substitute for interpretation. A pathway to interpretation, yes, but not a substitute. The “how” and “what” of an object’s making are important, but must be paired with the “why” and “with what effect, to what end, or with what influence.”
  8. Don’t be clever. Be correct. Be complete.  If I want wit and humor, I'll go watch George Carlin.  On an exam, I want a tornado of smart, well-phrased arguments.  Bells and whistles won't help unless you're already doing everything right.
  9. Discuss the historical context.  Formalism and aesthetics haven't been enough for decades.  It's called art history for a reason.  You need both parts.
  10. Use your art history vocabulary.  It's a technical language that will not only add clarity and specificity to what you're saying, but it will prove to me that you know a lot more than just the words themselves.  Wasn't it great when LeBron ran down the whole pitch and smashed through that field goal?  Maybe in another dimension where words don't matter.  Same principle with an art history test.  We teach you the words so you can use them.
  11. Please don't waste our time with intro paragraphs that spout platitudes or generalities.  Neither waste time restating the question in the form of a sentence.  I don't care what your high school taught you.  You're wasting time and space that could be better used saying something substantial about the art.  I wrote the question.  I don't need it echoed back at me.
  12. Proofread the damn thing.  Nobody writes a perfect essay on the first try in a dark room while being timed.  Proofread.

A Few Methods for Writing a Solid Paper

Hello Again-

Now that you're all living directed, healthy lives, I'd like to point you toward another critical facet of Art History...paper writing.

Writing papers is one of the most important skills within the discipline of Art History. Visual analysis and research would be my other two nominees, and I believe myself safe to say that the three are of a group, like the Graces or the members of Rush or the number of Star Wars films that are worth watching.

Thus, let me submit a brief and evolving list of pointers that I believe will serve you well. These are based on past papers and the problems that seem to emerge on a somewhat constant basis. This is not a complete list, but attending to the below will offer a sound foundation. In no particular order, because they are all critical...

  • Meet the minimum length requirements. If your Professor says "minimum four full pages," they are not kidding. Three pages won't suffice. Three and a half won't suffice. If I owe you ten bucks and give you nine, are we even?
  • Formatting is not a joke. Art History tends to use the Chicago Manual of Style. If your Professor asks that you do so, please do so. Do not use APA, MLA, or any other style.
  • Similarly, if there are guidelines for the actual formatting of the document, follow them. Check your word processing program. Their default settings are often not what your Professor may want. Honor these requests. The Devil is in the details. The Devil is a poor grade.
  • Edit! Reread your paper. Then let it sit. Then reread it again. Repeat this process at least three times. Ask a friend to read it. Ask someone who knows nothing about the topic. Their ignorance is your best defense. Let them tell you what is unclear, or convoluted, or lacking. Read your paper out loud. Things sound different than they look. Reading a paper aloud will help in ways much different than reading with your eyes. Trust me. This was advice given to me by my grad advisor. She was never wrong.
  • Understand what kind of paper you are writing. An exhibition review is different than a book different than a book different than a research paper. Know the difference.
  • Have a thesis. If you aren't arguing something specific and specifically, or aren't trying to demonstrate something, what are you doing? State your intentions clearly and early. Bind the rest of the paper to this purpose and follow through to the end.
  • Do not regurgitate class lectures. It is not acceptable to offer a prose version of what your Professor said in class. Any Professor who has a memory will remember what they've said and ask you why you are repeating them.
  • Avoid esoterica. If it isn't on topic, or in some way supportive of the topic, why are you discussing it?
  • Do not generalize. Be specific. Apples are apples. Oranges are oranges. Do not try to artificially group things that are independent and individual.
  • Do the research. Be purposeful with your research. Be skeptical with what you are reading. Just because it shares a keyword does not make it germane. Will every article ever published on Picasso have something to do with your paper on his ceramics? Probably not. Don't be a bibliographical Enron. Use what counts and what furthers your ideas. Just because it exists doesn't mean it is useful.
  • On the same note, be wise about your sources. An anecdote: I once had a student who was doing research for me. The topic doesn't matter. He found an internet resource (again, skepticism) that he was unsure of, so he asked me to look at it (smart move), which I did. Turns out that the individual who wrote and published said resource was not only younger than my student, but had a lower GPA. Hmm... Just because it exists doesn't mean it's quality.
  • Use the images directly. I may have said this in a bit of a huff, but I told a group of students that it's called Art History because the art comes first. If it doesn't, you're doing something else. I may have been overstating the case, but what we do deals with images and objects. Deal with them directly and thoroughly. They are evidence, not illustrations.
  • Know the difference between description and interpretation. If you are currently trying to figure it out, look it up.
  • If you are doing comparison or contrasting, integrate the two objects. This isn't the blues. A-B-A-B won't cut it. Mix them together. Play them off of each other. Dealing with the objects in isolation is neither comparison nor contrasting.
  • Use your human resources. Your Professor has office hours for a reason. There is a Librarian in the Library. Check the Writing Center. Go online and read websites about art writing. Read the books that exist about art writing. These are all endlessly useful and horribly underused resources.
  • My 8th grade English teacher told me this and I remember it every time I try to put pen to paper: Say what you mean and mean what you say.

Remember, writing is like riding a bicycle. The first few attempts usually involve a bit of pain and damage. But, with practice and diligence, grace and agility will prevail.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Few Methods for Avoiding Disaster

Greetings and Salutations-

Everyone knows that every semester brings its own special version of chaos. So, in anticipation of whatever may come, I would like to submit the following half-dozen ideas as a certain defense against entropy. I'm certainly not a lifestyle coach, but I've seen more than three smart people in less-than-smart circumstances. So, I though this might help.

But, like all advice, take it with a grain of salt. You've got to establish your own systems.

1. You have to play 60 minutes of football...This is NFL speak for "everything counts." It's true. Everything counts. That class you might want to sleep through? That material will be on the exam. That first exam you don't want to study too hard for because it's still early in the semester and there will definitely be time to fix things later? That's 25% of your grade. Those five minutes that you're late? That's going to count against you. Everything you do (or don't do) contributes to your final grade. Don't forget that.

2. Here's another good one from the NFL...While you're sleeping, someone else is watching film. School isn't a competition against anyone but yourself, but preparation is everything. The extra ten minutes of studying you do while waiting for the pasta to cook? That might show up on the exam. That study group you get together with instead of going out on Saturday night? Those other three people will certainly know something you don't. They may have a new perspective for you to consider. There are 24 hours in every day. Use them wisely. Every additional minute of review, study, thinking, discussion, or whatever you do to make the information dance in your mind is helpful. New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees has been known to be in the team facility at 5 am to do extra work. All he's done in the past four years is set the all-time passing yards record. 1+1 generally equals 2. The military has a similar notion called the 7 Ps: Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents P--- Poor Performance.

3. Anima sana in corpore sano...Ever hear of ASICS athletic shoes? Think about it. A.S.I.C.S. It's Latin for "Sound mind in sound body." And that's true as well. You've got to keep both in good order. Let me suggest a few methods here.
  • Get a good night's sleep. They always recommend 8 hours, especially if you're still growing. I like to get about 6, I know people who need 8, 10, 4. Whatever works best, but get those ZZZZs. I've never once been exhausted and intelligent at the same time.
  • Don't eat garbage. Yeah, you're a broke student with crazy demands on your time. But this doesn't mean you have to eat like a possum. Rethink it. Fruit and vegetables are cheap. Beans and lentils are cheap. Pasta is cheap. These are all healthy and can be flipped a million different ways. Ever hear that old adage about an apple a day? That too is true. Apples are great for you. They provide a sugar rush. They actually clean your teeth when you chew them. They're filled with vitamins and fiber. They go with damn near anything and are good at any time of day. Breakfast, snack, dessert, whatever. Go buy a whole chicken. Rub it with whatever flavors you like. Roast it at 350 for 45 minutes. Flip it and roast it for another 45 minutes. There you go. Food for a few days. A big pot of beans and rice will also keep you fed for a while. A lasagna will do the same. Get a cookbook and read it. Improvise and reconfigure.
  • Watch your chemistry. Don't overcaffeinate. Try tea instead of coffee. Try anything instead of energy drinks.
  • Drink tons of water. Ask your doctor...water is the body's lubricant. You wouldn't let the oil run dry in a Maserati, would you? Imagine how silly it would be to do the same to your own body. They say you need at least 64 ounces a day. My method is to always have water on hand. When it's gone, refill.
  • Don't be a fool. Taking someone else's medication so that you can stay up all night and study? Foolish. Red Bull and Pop Tarts for breakfast? Foolish. I'm not saying that you have to be a macrobiotic yogi, but don't be an idiot.
  • Hygiene is key. Firstly, it prevents illness, the mortal enemy of smarts. Secondly, college is the time during which the transition into professional adulthood begins. Nobody wants to work with or near someone who lacks basic hygiene. I'm not arguing for a quarantined sterility, but, as we are all members of a social collective, we should do our part to maintain the collective wellness. Raccoons wash their hands and food before they eat. Why don't we all take a hint?
4. Come ready to play. Learning is an active process, entirely different from watching tv or theatre or films. You need to be focused and motivated. I don't know what it takes for anyone but myself, but you have to come to the classroom switched completely on, hungry for learning, and ready. Some people listen to speed metal, some do jumping jacks, some do sun salutations. Find your method. Use it.

5. Everything is everything. I stole this one from Lauryn Hill, because she's right. In case we, as a culture, have forgotten who Lauryn Hill is, let me call this the Avatar theory. Everything is interconnected. That tv show you watched last night might be based on the story from Ovid you've just read for a Mythologies class. 3-D design principles might help you organize your furniture better. Did you know that Metallica's Creeping Death is based on the Book of Exodus? Keep your brain on record at all times and don't differentiate important information from whatever else there may be. There's nothing else. All information can be made useful.

6. The love of the game...Education is its own reward, one that rewards work and dedication. Yes, grades are a measurable, tangible markers that people will respond to. I'm not naive. I know that grades are the primary focus. But learning should be. Becoming a more well-rounded, better-informed, more open-minded individual is a goal that need not come with expectations of rewards. Being in school is beautiful. Your only responsibility is to learn and to learn well. I cannot imagine a greater luxury. Do it for its own pleasures and it will provide greater pleasures.

Good luck. See you there.


n.b.: Remember, we're here to help. There's no such thing as a stupid question, only the stupidity of being too ashamed to ask.