Midterm Exam Assignment

PURPOSE: to give you a chance to think about the works we've read in the first half of the semester as a group; to get all the benefits of preparing for and thinking about an exam without actually having to take one
LENGTH: one page
Studying for exams is the one way a lot of students take the time to reflect on what a class has been studying. I'm trying to get you to do that by making, rather than taking, a test.

By this point you've all taken a lot of exams, so you already have a good idea of what they are like. This is your chance to design one, maybe even a better, fairer, more creative or imaginative one than your teachers have inflicted on you. I don't want to be too particular in my directions, because I think that if I give you freedom to conceptualize a midterm for this course you'll come up with things I'd never have thought of. But everybody's midterm should show how well you've seen what are the issues we've been dealing with so far, both the issues in the novels and the concerns of the course, and should come up with ways to bring some of those issues into a larger focus.

If you want a formula: I think a good basic design for an exam in a literature course is to have two parts, a short-answer section designed to let students show how carefully they've read the invidual works, and an essay-answer section that would ask them to make comparisons between several works. Most short-answer exams use some variant of "i.d." -- identify characters, recognize passages, etc. Like a good paper, a good short-answer section uses well-chosen examples: not too obscure, not too obvious, etc. You can be as creative as you want.

If I'd given you a real midterm, it would have consisted of about four essay questions, and told you to pick any two to answer. Each question would have involved a comparison between two of the books we've read, that somehow touched on the issues of "being somebody" and/or "becoming English majors." As an example:

In Sister Carrie Dreiser makes his central character an actress. In Invisible Man, Ellison makes his an orator. Thus both are frequently enacting a self publically, in front of an audience or a crowd. Both Carrie and "Invisible" achieve a lot of success in these public identities, but what kind of "selves" are they on stage? What role does the audience play in determining their identity? Why does the quest to be somebody lead them to these performances?
That's the kind of question, by the way, that I will ask on the final exam -- and it's a question I want to talk about when we get back to Invisible Man -- but it's offered here only as an example of the kind of essay/comparison question I like to ask. I'm sure you can think of better ones. And I won't be surprised if you can think of better exam formats too -- don't feel you have to use the "short answer/essay answer" format if you want to try out something else. The important thing is that your exam would allow a student taking it to pull together in thoughtful and illuminating ways what we've been studying this semester. Good luck!