The finals countdown: freshman Lit Trad exams

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Photo by Peter Burleigh

Anyone who has completed their freshman year at the University of Dallas has completed two semester-long courses in The Literary Tradition. Although the Core provides a unified overview of the greatest writings in the Western tradition, every section of Lit Trad looks slightly different. 

Tradition is glorified at UD, but are all traditions worth keeping?

At UD, the English department contains a vast diversity of minds. Each professor possesses specialties and concentrations, and students can choose which teacher’s style they prefer when signing up for Lit Trad classes. While the English program at UD is excellent, many students wish that the Lit Trad finals process looked different.  

At the end of each semester in freshman year, all of the Lit Trad sections take the same final, on the same day, at the same time. English department chair Dr. Debra Romanick Baldwin consulted with English professor Dr. John Alvis, who told her that the Lit Trad finals have been administered this way since at least 1962. 

When Baldwin asked Alvis why this practice had begun, he replied, “It is almost obvious that if you have a common syllabus, you want a common exam. It keeps both teachers and students attentive to the central concerns of the epic poets, and it helps maintain the integrity and harmony of the course.”  

Baldwin also pointed out that the finals are not standardized, but rather “common,” since each professor grades the exams according to his or her own discretion. Baldwin said that common Lit Trad finals help to assure that students “have actually read the poems,” “can analyze a passage thoughtfully” and “can think broadly and deeply.” 

Additionally, for the professors “this exam reminds us of what we have in common.” Indeed, the students share a common experience too, but they have a different perspective. Some students, such as myself and junior English and French major Grace Burleigh, did not know about the common finals process before coming to UD. 

“I figured that it would be the same as high school, in which the exams were given according to the teacher who taught each section,” Burleigh said. Personally, I did not know about it until I got my fall finals schedule freshman year. 

There was a multiplicity of preparation for the final among my classmates. Some professors gave quotation identification quizzes every class, but others gave none at all. Additionally, there were different paces at which classes covered each text.

“Not all profs teach Lit Trad the same way, and the syllabus, unfortunately, goes out the window at times; one Lit Trad section may read all of The Aeneid in a week— which I had to do— while another section devotes the entire first quarter on The Inferno alone,” Burleigh said. In Lit Trad II this can be especially problematic, with some sections spending only one or two class periods on 49 poems. 

“Each person who teaches the course that semester contributes some aspect of the exam:  quotation i.d.’s, short answer questions, analysis questions or integrative essay questions,” Baldwin said. The draft then goes through several revisions, and all the teachers read it the day before it is administered. 

While this process may help unify teachers, students often find themselves scrambling to cram these beautiful, valuable literary works. Because freshmen cannot gauge their professors’ grading rubrics, they study all night and all day, desperately trying to memorize characters and themes. Although they may end up with a good grade, they often only remember a few key characters once they complete the test. 

Common finals are somewhat beneficial, however. As Burleigh pointed out, “From a practical standpoint, I can see why the professors do it: it’s simpler logistically to have all the freshmen take the exam at once.” 

From a teachers’ perspective, Baldwin said, “A common exam ensures that we are evaluating what we as a department value in students’ education.” 

Common Lit Trad finals, while perhaps not as stressful as the ACTs or SATs, merit reconsideration. Normal, class-specific finals would help students to focus on what they and their professor found valuable in the readings. Even though the finals would look different, the Core would still dictate the texts. 

So, fear not.

The inter-class dialogue about Achilles, Odysseus, Dante and Virgil would continue to flourish—with or without common finals.

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