The Maroon

Column: Finals schedule may need change

JOHN+SEBASTIAN
JOHN SEBASTIAN

JOHN SEBASTIAN

The Maroon

The Maroon

JOHN SEBASTIAN

JOHN SEBASTIAN

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Well, here we are again, the end of another semester and another academic year. A wise man once remarked that April is the cruelest month, and nowhere does that feel more true than on a college campus.

Just as the air begins to warm up, the flowers begin to bloom and the sounds of live music begin to waft across our city, so do we all, students and professors alike, retreat indoors to our dorm rooms, our offices and the library in an effort to conquer the stacks of work that threaten to topple over and bury us alive at any given moment.

And it is the time of year when the very pages of this newspaper begin growling about the necessary evil of final exams.

I’ve been thinking about final exams a lot lately. In the fall, the exams for both my Chaucer and Shakespeare classes fell on the very first day of the finals period. I found myself struggling with the conundrum of how to design an exam that was rigorous and called for its takers to demonstrate their mastery of the course material but that wasn’t punishing simply for punishment’s sake. A Monday exam left my students little time to prepare, and this was especially true for the few enrolled in both courses.

When I was an undergraduate,

we had four study days, and finals extended over a week and a half. It was rare for a student to wind up with two exams scheduled on the same day, never mind three. Our neighbors at Tulane provide for two study days this semester and spread exams out over a nine-day period. The spring is especially difficult at Loyola, with only a single “dead day” – dead because nothing is going on or because in our collective exhaustion we all collapse into inanimate heaps? – before a breakneck seven-day period of sleepless studying and testing.

As a professor, I try to be sympathetic toward our students and their burdens. Scoring an A on a final exam should not entail superhuman feats of endurance. In an ideal world, we would provide more time not only for our students to study and take their exams but to reflect deeply and meaningfully on a semester’s worth of exploration, of engagement with new ideas, of challenges to their ways of thinking and worldviews.

In anticipation of author and cultural critic Nicholas Carr’s visit to campus to reflect on whether and how the internet is shaping the way we think by literally restructuring our brains, I’ve been reflecting on what Carr suggests is the passing fad of deep reading and how this relates to how our students learn. Carr’s vision of the future is one in which reading as an immersive act of sustained reflection is displaced by an internet- dominated culture in which rapid- fire clicking about becomes the norm. Whether or not Carr’s apocalyptic warnings accurately depict what’s looming over our cultural horizon, I share his concern that deep reading, no matter what replaces it, is on the

way out.

I’ve also been struck in reading

Carr’s most recent book by the affinities that his message has with that of Adolfo Nicolás, the current Superior General of the Society of Jesus. In an important address delivered in Mexico City in 2010, Fr. Nicolás warns against what he calls “the globalization of superficiality,” a malady best treated through the promotion of depth of thought and imagination. He remarks that “depth of thought and imagination in the Ignatian tradition involves a profound engagement with the real, a refusal to let go until one goes beneath the surface.”

In advocating for depth, Fr. Nicolás follows the model of Ignatius himself, who centuries ago observed the spiritual benefits of contemplation. Early in the Spiritual Exercises Ignatius advocates moving beyond knowledge for the sake of knowledge – Wikipedia comes to mind here – to a deeper and ultimately more nourishing engagement with the world. He writes, “what fills and satisfies the soul consists not in knowing much but in our understanding the realities profoundly and in savoring them interiorly.” In Spanish, the word translated here as “savoring” is gusta; Ignatius, in other words, wants us to become so intimately invested in reality that we can taste it. No doubt he was himself influenced by the mode of monastic reading known as lectio divina that had predominated in Europe for centuries. This method for reading sacred texts included as part of its process ruminatio or rumination, a form of reflection that identifies reading with the unrushed process of cows chewing the cud.

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This sort of deep reading and reflecting that resembles the leisurely eating habits of unhurried cows in a pasture and that enables us to taste the very reality of the world around us so that we might better understand it, and eventually become agents of change within it, seems mostly at odds with a system of final examinations that encourages, whether intentionally or not, cramming. There’s another alimentary image for you, one that evokes scenes of geese being force fed in order to fatten them up for the production of the delicacy known as foie gras.

There are all sorts of perfectly legitimate explanations for why our final exam schedule here at Loyola is so compact, especially in the spring, including the length of our several breaks, the timing of commencement, the start of the summer sessions and so on. And some students will always wait until the last minute, no matter how much time they have available. (This is true of professors too, of course; I had originally promised to write this piece for the end of last semester!) But it might be time, before the globalization of superficiality swallows us all whole, to consider what changes we can make to foster conditions on campus that might be more hospitable to those of us who strive to be contemplative cows rather than silly geese.

John Sebastian is an associate professor of English and can be reached at [email protected]

On The Record is a regular column open to all Loyola faculty and staff. Those interested in contributing can contact [email protected]

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