"All words are symbols that represent unspeakable realities. Which is also why words are magical." (Donald Miller tweet)

Wednesday, March 07, 2012


I'm really not a fan of ambiguity.

Last week, I got a mid-term exam back. I wasn't really sure what to expect, as it was a different exam format than usual. And the prof, while not at all bad lecturer, continually tosses out comments such as, "This is the kind of question that might be on the exam. So ... you know, if you don't know this ..." and then he shakes his head and raises his hands in a gesture of futility.

I know that sounds helpful. But it leaves me wondering why he seems to have already readied his "I told you so" remarks. I can only assume they are based on the performance of past students. Which means that I may THINK I am ready for the exam, when in reality I am NOT.

So we got the exams back. It was a lower mark than I normally get. And yet ... the class average was lower than usual. And I was still on the acceptably high end of it. I stuck around to hear his detailed remarks about each question because it seemed like the smart thing to do. So he read each question, and then said, "Now what we were LOOKING for was ..." frankly, a lot more detail than the question implied. Of course, the required head-shaking and hand-raising were part of the explanation.

I listened, jotted down a few notes, but was surprised to discover no sign of inner outrage. After all, he's been doing his job for a long time. His exams are obviously considered acceptable. And me? I decided a long time ago that if someone wasn't going to tell me what they REALLY wanted, I wasn't going to be too hard on myself for not reading their minds.

On the final exam, I'll write more. Now I know.

I walked out of the exam to discover a parking ticket on my car. Got out of the car and stared at the three conflicting parking signs above my car, all on one pole. Stood there, an intelligent, job-holding, university-attending adult, for several minutes, trying to figure out where I had gone wrong. Finally deciphered the various dates and times when parking was permitted, saw where I had gone wrong, shrugged my shoulders and got into the car. Again - if the City of Hamilton isn't going to communicate clearly - well, there it is.

I have a life. I don't want to spend it fighting profs or the City, unless it's really important. Which I think shows tremendous growth on my part.

But I'm still not a fan of ambiguity.


Derbecker said...

Emo Phillips once said "Ambiguity is the Devil's Volleyball." It doesn't make a lot of sense, but it's easier to face ambiguous situations when imagining the devil with zinc on his nose on a beach trying to get teams together for another game...

Ken said...

While I agree that getting too fussed is not appropriate, I'd suggest some followup with the professor.
"Considered acceptable" assumes some evaluation is involved, which I think is rare in universities. I never once had another prof sit in on my lectures, nor read my exams, nor inspect my marking, in the 4 years I taught. And I came straight from being a university student myself, with no teaching experience (save 'lab assistant' stuff).

So you might consider a polite note to the prof after the course is over. And certainly include such a comment on a 'rate my prof' site to warn subsequent students.

Patti said...

Well ... I did actually learn a few years ago from a newer prof that profs never get evaluated. I've had opportunity to talk to several profs; they've requested my feedback, after they find out that teaching in front of a group is what I get paid to do as well. I've even considered starting a small consulting business (but I'd have to do it on that elusive 8th day of the week).

However, in this case, the prof has made perfectly clear that he knows his exams are right. He's been giving them for years, he says. If you think something is wrong with your mark, there is a very specific, rather time-consuming procedure to appeal it. That's the only avenue offered. I did email the TA to ask for clarification, which I received, followed by the specific procedure for appealing my own mark (which I'm not doing).

And ... there is less reading in this class than usual. And no papers to write. Just two exams, each worth 50%. So it's a trade-off. I'm having to put less time than usual into this class. Although when I stop to think about it - if I didn't have a great TA, I might be in trouble.

I probably will pop in at "rate my professor". :) And there are always the anonymous evaluations at the end of the course - I may write a polite note there as well.

Sheepdog said...



You are far more laid back than I would have been. Way to go for not letting it get you down.