Planning the Train

December 05, 2003



There is a common form of exam question called The Train: four individuals are placed in a contrived situation and then handed a somewhat improbable topic of conversation that involves some of the core questions of the class. The students re-create that conversation. It is a question form that creative students love, square students hate.

One final exam question I am working on for the study guide is a variation on the train:

"A mad scientist socialite has decided to host a dinner party using her new time machine. She has invited John Winthrop, Benjamin Franklin, Catherine Beecher, and Abraham Lincoln and you to dinner. During dessert the conversation turns to XXXX. Recount their conversation - you may use made up quotations or you may simply summarize their main points. This portion of the exam should take you about 50 minutes to write.

I presented this question to the students on Thursday so I could get some feedback from them. They made some useful changes - flipping out Angelina Gimke in favor of Catherine Beecher - and they also helped me figure out what XXXX should be. What question will best get students to review our reading on these four, review the class notes where we discussed them, integrate that knowledge with the other things we learned this semester, and then easily write a coherent essay?

I am bad at writing a good exam question.

My initial thought for XXXX had been: What is the nature of a just society?

The morning section hated that, and proposed: How Should society work? The morning section was also a little intimidated by the question - I got the silence that told me they were hoping it would go away.

The afternoon section also disliked the question: it felt contrived, people worried that it was a measure of reading skills not overall knowledge; they thought it was poorly connected to the rest of the class; and they feared that having a big question like this would suck up study time from other questions. I did not tell them that ALL my comprehensive questions are comparably nasty - they will figure that out on Tuesday when they get the study guide. I did tell them that if I used the Train, I would make sure that other questions also used these people and their ideas; studying for this essay would help them study for other essays.

The afternoon section talked about whether they should have specific sub-topics - what did each person think about economics, gender roles, political power, etc - but came down on the side of a broad fuzzy question. The best thing I have from them is: What should an ideal America look like?

I don't like either question as currently written. "Look like" is very unclear, especially because of the phrase's use to refer to ethnic and gender composition in recent years. "Society" is also a terribly broad word. I will look at the exam questions that they submitted for the study sheet, write up some other questions, and then work on the Train only if I decide to use it.

I was hoping for a question that would encourage the students to talk about: John Winthrop on love as the glue that makes a hierarchical society work, and about Providential promises and rewards; Benjamin Franklin on patron-client relations as the glue that makes a hierarchical society work, and about the Republic of Letters and the aristocracy of talent; Catherine Beecher on male dominance in the political and physical world, female dominance in the moral and emotional world, and the need for women to eschew confrontation in order to dominate the world through domestic love; Abraham Lincoln on the dangers of letting a minority control a majority, and on the importance of government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Perhaps a question about social hierarchies - "What sort of social hierarchies produce the best society? and how should a society resolve its internal conflicts?"

By George, this blog has produced another useful think piece. It is remarkable how many of our problems we can solve for ourselves by simply explaining them in a letter to someone. In this case, I will hit publish and "send" the letter. Hope this was interesting for you to read.

And so to grade.

Posted by Red Ted at December 5, 2003 11:23 AM | TrackBack