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Friday, November 27th, 2009

Time Event
1:10p
What is the answer where there's no question

So you've got an exam to prepare for? How you prepare is depends on many things, mostly whether you're giving or taking it. If you are taking the exam be courteous and don't take two or more, unless there are enough to go around. If you're giving the exam then have a couple of extras so the photocopier can produce a few blurry copies with page three missing and page five stapled to something completely inappropriate, such as an early map of the gold fields of California or a teaching assistant, which makes it (not the teaching assistant) happy. If you lack a teaching assistant try stapling them to a field guide to steam locomotives, an attractive but uninformative copy of which may be found in the Attractive But Uninformative Books To Give As Gifts table in the bookstore.

Let's get back to thinking what you'd do if you're giving the exam, and you should really look this up before you get your preparations under way, since the next thing you have to do after deciding you really want to give one is learn what your subject is. There are some subjects that are much better as exam material than others. For example, Contemporary South Asian Art is a great subject to give an exam in.

You can ask all kinds of questions about what the art is, or who committed the feat of art, or how it was received, and whether it was received with an appreciative comment or if it was clearly just a quick acknowledgement and attempt to change the subject, and whether it meets the important qualifications of art like can it be used as the decorative pattern on the backs of mass transit system fare cards and so on. You can fill an exam's worth of questions before you even get into the big things like ``What is Asia?'' and ``Are we sure we know what we mean by South just yet?''. (No.)

Now compare that to when you have a tough subject, like Coffee Cups. There's almost nothing you can ask there. You can show a student an object and put out the question: Is This A Coffee Cup? (A) Yes, (B) No, (C) All of the above, (D) There is insufficient information to answer this question, (E) I'm thirsty. There's nowhere to go from there, and even when you're there you aren't much of anywhere. If you're giving the exam to upper-level undergraduates or maybe Masters' students you can try essay questions about whether something is a coffee cup if it's only ever used for tea, and how things change if you brew the tea in coffee rather than water, but what are the odds you're teaching an advanced course in Coffee Cups? Exactly. The notion is silly and I'm sorry to waste your time with it.

Much more probable is that you're preparing an exam in Socks, since you can there ask questions like: Is This A Pair Of Socks? using the same set of answers as above for the multiple-choice portion. It also leads to a natural essay question in that you can ask people who've chosen ``I'm thirsty'' as a response to the sock identification question just why they're thirsty. Is it the result of some sock-related incident? Have they possibly got a sock stuffed in their mouths right now? I mean each of them has one sock and one mouth per person, though advanced students might have multiple socks stuffed in there. Why are the socks there? Is it an attempt to keep them silent during their kidnapping? If it is should we contact responsible authorities, and maybe campus security too?

Now you see how fortunate you are? By having the exam in the correct subject area (Socks, not Coffee Cups) you've managed to detect and maybe even foil a serious crime. So you've earned the gratitude of the would-be victim, the family, and maybe even got a write-up in the student newspaper where they'll spell your name in an innovative new way.

The only downside to giving the exams is you'll also have to get them graded. Try a rock tumbler.

Trivia: Daniel Defoe asserted that the great storm of 27 November 1703 was the same one which had been felt in America several days earlier. Source: A History of the United States Weather Bureau, Donald R Whitnah.

Currently Reading: McKinley, Bryan, and the People, Paul W Glad.

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