I gave my two finals yesterday, and by the end of the second day, I'd graded the easy "half" (essay) of each. I still have the passages and short answer parts, but I feel suddenly totally less stressed about grading.
My goal for the essay part of exams is that students will put what they've learned over the semester together somewhat, that they'll be able to work with what they've learned in a somewhat fuller way.
To that end, I start a couple weeks out with brainstorming, and have them make a list of topics that might be good on the exam, and give them the parameters (works from across the term, theory/critical works if an upper level course). They take that list, and then do some work (either individually or in groups, or both) to try crafting some essay questions. Then I take their essay question and work them into a list of questions, shaping them a bit.
At that point, I bring those questions back to the class and they narrow the choices. Then, if need be, I narrow the choices, until I have five, which I work into real essay questions, so that I think each of them could be used to write a really good exam essay.
And then, about a week before the exam, I take those to the students, and they choose the final three. Of those three, two will appear on the final exam, and they'll write about one of them. They can use books and notes on that part of the final.
So, they have a week to prepare to write about two of the questions, and can do whatever level of preparation they wish. (I do warn them about the dangers of not preparing and thinking they can just look at notes or whatever during the exam.) A lot of students do two essay outlines, and then mark things in their texts or notes to bring in. A few write the actual essays and then copy them out during the exam. (That seems overkill to me, but oh well.)
The thing is, they have time to spend really thinking about the essay questions, so by and large, they tend to write good exam essays, and some of them really bring things together in super ways.
In my intro course, which I blogged about re the calendar, and the initial challenge, back in May, and choosing the longer works here, students brought up race/racism, family, social class/wealth, and other good stuff in their initial brainstorming, and when I gave them the final, with a question about how the literature represented race/racism and a question about how the lit represented families, about half chose the race/racism question, and overall, everyone did a good job. A few of them really wrote well (or else they wrote well about what they thought I wanted them to write about. Is there a difference?).
More than one or two of the race/racism essays talked about being a white person, and not having experienced racism, and so reading about it made them think about their own experiences in different ways.
A few of the family essays were insightful and thoughtful, too. (Most intro writing course essays were intro writing course essays. They did the job as such, and did it just fine.)
Overall, then, I'm feeling pretty good about that course, the literature I taught, and what students learned.
My favorite piece from the semester is Kwame Alexander's "Life" (which is still under copyright, so I guess you have to go look in a library!). I showed students pictures of termites, and talked about what it means to be a "liberal" and why that might not be enough, and what it means to use "termite" as a metaphor for white folks, and how that makes me think, and so forth. So I felt a bit vulnerable teaching it, but it made me think and rethink!
I taught Timon of Athens in the Green Shakespeare course (and it worked pretty well, and I liked it a whole lot more on rereading than I had before). As I'd blogged about here, Timon was the last play I hadn't yet taught. And now I've taught it, so I've finally achieved one of my weird goals from when I first started teaching.
All in all, a challenging semester with lots of new stuff to teach, and all in all, I think a good semester. Next semester, new challenges! But for now, a massage and then some more grading.