Thoughts on Argentina's Conjunctures :: Recuperating Work, Recovering Life (2005-2007)

Monday, December 19, 2005

How to Take an Exam...and Remake the World

Once you've finished reading Marx's Capital, Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, Lukacs, and Marcuse, Bertell Ollman's book on exam writing and the ideological nightmares of capitalism is a must. Here's a sample:

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True/False Exams: for those occasions where you don't have a clue as to the right answer, here are some statistics that may help in your guessing. A study by H.E. Hawkes, E.F. Lindquist, and C.R. Mann found that in statements containing the word "all" four out of five were false; in statements containing the word "none" four out of five were false; and in statements containing the word "always";, three out of four were false. Whereas, in statements containing the word "some" four out of five were true; and in statements containing the word "generally" three out of four were true. They also found that the longer the statement, the more likely it is to be true.

Assuming that the readers of this book are typical of the mass of students in our capitalist world, there are some among you who in the years to come are going to commit suicide, or become drug addicts and alcoholics, or spend years as derelicts or in prison, and others, the luckier ones, will just lose your jobs and homes, or never get a good job or a decent home, and take your anger and frustration out in bouts of depression or in violence against your spouses and children. I'm going to tell you something that could save you from these horrible fates. Listen closely. YOU ARE NOT GUILTY. The conditions that are responsible for most of your suffering are not your fault; nor is it a matter of God's will, or of bad luck. Instead, most of what may one day drive you over the edge is due to this simple fact: The Game is Rigged! You never had a fair, let along equal, chance, and you won't. "Equality of Opportunity" is only a designer's label on the Emperor's new clothes. This is capitalism's dirty little secret. Once you know this secret and understand where and how it has been hidden, you can stop punishing yourself and your loved ones, and join in the struggle to change the rules of the game.

In Essay Exams, it is generally wise to tackle your second best question first. If you answer the question you know most about first, there is a danger that you will write too long and not leave enough time for other questions. Also, it takes a little while to warm up in an essay exam, and leaving the question you know most about for second increases the likelihood of doing your best on it. One of the worst answers I wrote on any exam was on the very question that I had been hoping would be there. I pounced on it immediately, but because I had so much to say it was very hard to finish. Then, noticing how little time I had left for the rest of the exam, I began to panic, and botched up the conclusion. I still have nightmares about this one.

After struggling and sacrificing through four or more years of university, you are ready to start a "career". Welcome to the world of part-time, temporary, "flexible" low paying, no benefit jobs, assuming you're lucky enough to find any job at all. It is estimated that over 30% of the work force is now part-time, but a majority of the new jobs created are now part-time and/or temporary. The owner of one agency that supplies temps and part-timers for businesses unashamedly admits we are creating a "new American sweat shop" made up of "disposable and throw-away workers" (New York Times, Mar. l3, l993) Is this what you've been preparing for?

In Bombay, India, recently, the city government decided to do a major clean up and advertised for seventy jobs as rat catcher. There were 40,000 applicants, of whom half were college graduates. Just another piece of Third World exotica? Or a chilling glimpse of what life in New York (and Toronto, and London) will be like five to ten years down the road?

In Oral Exams, most questions are composed on the spot, which means that they can be very vague and even contradictory. An otherwise brilliant professor with whom I often worked needed two or three verbal whacks at what he was thinking before anyone knew what he was talking about. Yet, again and again, students, who were too respectful of authority, assumed his first words had to make sense, and fell all over themselves trying to respond. The other professors present always felt very sorry for the poor student, whose self-confidence would begin to disintegrate right before our eyes, but there was nothing we could do. So, in an oral exam, don't assume that when a question is unusually difficult the fault is yours. Ask for a clarification. Be sure you know exactly what is being asked before you start to answer.