the final exam where I’m blissfully superfluous

Why am I not present and carefully monitoring the final exam I am ‘giving’ right now (from 8:00 am – 10:00 am)? Because my fourteen DH students don’t need me there. They’ve designed the final; they’re completing it collaboratively; and, from what I’ve seen so far, it’s the best exam I’ve ever given.

To be fair, this class was a little different (read that as an instance of litotes).  By design different. I was wholly uninterested in grades in this class. Rather, I emphatically wanted to impress upon my students the importance of learning; the importance of caring about what and how and why they learned; and the importance of contributing to scholarship and pedagogy. So I adopted a modified version of Cathy Davidson’s crowdsourced grading model. Instead of asking the students to evaluate one another, I asked that all work be posted openly on our course blog, and I defined nearly all of it as pass / fail (exceptions: major project & final exam, but even these were/are collaborative and open).

Students posted their assignments (and quite a lot of unsolicited yet relevant and worthwhile content as well), and read and responded to one another’s work. I commented in response to some posts, and around the mid-point I wrote individual evaluative summaries confirming very strong contributions and encouraging less committed contributors. (Some reported feeling more compelled – because of the openness of the class – to perform at a very high level. After all, they told me, their peers were paying attention.)

The course focused quite a lot on various DH methods (text encoding, transcription, visualizations, text analysis, etc.), the effects of technology on our culture, and students did DH (e.g. participated in Transcribe Bentham and developed their own DH proposals, which were presented and reviewed conference style). We also examined some of the practices underlying the best work in DH, like collaboration and crowdsourcing, for example. And because we had closed the semester by discussing selections from Davidson and Goldberg’s The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age and Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation (together, powerful reading in the hands of undergraduates), it seemed patently indefensible to ask students to complete a traditional, individual final exam. (really, I could in no way imagine these individuals, whom I’ve encouraged to stand in front of the (metaphorical) room and who have taken the lead in this course, sitting in their desks playing some pedestrian student role)

So I didn’t. I shared that while I was willing to give a traditional final exam, I didn’t think that doing so was commensurate with the spirit or the aim of the course. Instead, I suggested my students might collaborate on the final exam and, in doing so, use the opportunity to illustrate – in theory and in practice – what they’d really learned.

And I was genuinely willing to leave it at that. These undergraduates took the challenges of the course seriously and were craving an opportunity to express themselves meaningfully and collaboratively – in short, they were craving an opportunity to say something important to the humanities community.

Their work began unfolding on our course blog well in advance of this morning’s scheduled exam (where, as of right now — 8:51 am — they still don’t need me). And although it felt somewhat, hmm, pedagogically risky (?) to restrain myself from weighing in every time the blog discussion surrounding how they would approach the final flared up in a not-so-promising way, I did indeed refrain from weighing in. And the students did indeed nudge each other back on track, and they did indeed define their own topic, guidelines, and deadlines. (remaining in the role of observer, it turns out, wasn’t risky at all)

That the exam must be collaborative (i.e. involve and engage all fourteen of them) and that it must be a reflection of their learning in some way were my only two conditions. For inspiration, I encouraged the class to envision the 4Humanities Student Voices section as a publication venue for their work self-designated “manifesto.”

Of course their contributions this semester – and even on the final exam – vary in quality and fervor, and of course their ideas diverge. But both of these points of divergence are consistent with any honest evaluation of virtually any work. And in the end, in the aggregate, their collective intelligence is pretty damn impressive.