After several excruciatingly long hours studying for midterms, it’s only natural that I eventually unplugged my music, closed my textbooks, drearily looked around me and questioned what the hell it is I am doing. I’d thought that these stress-induced existential crises would be left behind in high school, where the futility of nearly every policy becomes uncomfortably blatant. To my horror, however, somewhere between memorizing the chemical properties of the atmosphere and ocean and frantically reading articles on immigration law in the 1960s, I began to feel the familiar and unanswerable question of “why?” seep into my mind once more.
Everyone at a UC school is a student at a research university, a university whose purported premise is to present young bright minds with today’s pressing questions in hopes that the students will be inspired enough to construct an answer. We are to indulge in the “intellectual curiosities” that we probably mentioned having in our admissions essays and cooperate with actively-researching professors to produce some kind of new and original knowledge. After diverting my attention away from the fascinating ceiling of Davidson Library and back onto my admittedly less interesting textbook, I realized that I felt absolutely no semblance of creativity or curiosity. Even in the subjects I enjoy, I do not feel particularly compelled to delve into the process of answering questions or conducting research when my focus must remain on doing whatever possible to obtain an A in the class.
With the value of a bachelor’s degree conveniently decreasing as we go on — my favorite Starbucks baristas in my hometown of Los Angeles boast a master’s in philosophy and a bachelor’s from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service — college becomes yet another place to develop an impressive application for the rest of one’s debt-inducing education. As the stresses of November transform masses of otherwise curious students into experts in memorization-regurgitation once more, I can’t help but wonder whether midterms, and the way in which grades at UCSB are calibrated, are actually making us into dumber members of society.
The justification for having midterm and final exams is valid enough. There should be some way to differentiate between those who paid attention and those who did not. If we didn’t live in perpetual fear of these exams, it’s difficult to say how many English majors would actually show up to the Astronomy lecture needed to fulfill the Science and Math GE. As much as I’d like to think of myself as a budding Renaissance woman who is cultured in every facet of our natural and social worlds, I’m not entirely sure whether the temptation to sleep would be overcome by a burning desire to learn about the wind. Thus, it is understandable that there needs to be some incentive to actively pay attention and at least read publications or quick notes on the given subject.
While I understand these exams as incentives (or threats?) for students to attend class, I am more skeptical when institutions or (less often) professors try to present them as opportunities for students to demonstrate a depth of knowledge of a topic. As students at a selective university, we have all learned to abuse the system to an extent. “Demonstrating knowledge” of a subject is often done through a few hours of strategic studying or extensive cramming. While wrapped up in the struggle to get an A, it’s nearly impossible to keep sight of the actual objective: to learn and to question. And by giving us only two to three chances per 10 weeks to demonstrate our mastery of a subject, universities practically scoff at the notion that we are to simultaneously develop opinions, solutions and questions.
While many liberal arts colleges cannot flaunt faculties of Nobel laureates and consistently-publishing professors, they can to some extent brag that their students really learn. A common practice among elite liberal arts colleges is the use of various projects and essays in lieu of conventional midterm and final exams. By allowing students to demonstrate mastery of a subject in their personal and creative ways, they abolish the pressure for every student to conform to a single determinant of intelligence. I may have an expansive knowledge of current winds (I don’t), but I have difficulty articulating said nonexistent knowledge in a timed environment and through the filling-in of bubbles.
As midterm results are returned, I am stunned to see how many of my peers who’d been able to debate certain policies or express dismay at the state of our climate received below-average midterm scores. If these same students were able to express this knowledge through a series of projects, essays, presentations, etc., the professor would’ve gotten goosebumps at the extent to which they digested and applied the given material. Unfortunately, and especially at the lower-division level, we are yet again categorized into numbers and stances in a curve.
Sabrina Hodjati just got her physics midterm back and she is really missing those alternative expressions of her knowledge.