Exams week has arrived in our household! For the next week, Luke will be taking the qualifying exams for his PhD. This is (ideally) the mark of the halfway point: he has finished his coursework and they gave him a Masters degree in June. Now he takes the exams to prove that he really has learned enough to start working on his dissertation. Then, this fall will consist of TA-ing for a class and writing his proposal.
All in all, the exams seem pretty humane. The first part was to write a 15-page paper that could serve as the beginnings of a dissertation chapter, and that was due last week. This week, Luke received three three-part questions (via email - thankfully, he can take these exams at home in Lansing where all his books are located). He has a week to answer each question. The questions are drawn from a set body of literature - between 100 and 200 books and articles for each exam area. He read many of these books and articles in classes over the last two years, and studied the rest over the summer.
Someone I was talking to recently about this said, "Oh - they sound pretty much like GOES." Since it was a useful frame of reference, I simply agreed. (For you non-ECUSA seminarians, GOES= General Ordination Exams, week-long exams ususally taken during senior year.) But, the comparison has gotten me thinking again about why the GOES need some, well, a lot of work. Now, I should concede up front that PhD qualifying exams have a different purpose from GOEs - the first being an indicator of readiness for further academic work, the latter being an indicator of rediness for ordained ministry. Still, both exams measure familiarity with the literature and topcis of particular areas at the end of coursework. The biggest problem with the GOEs, however, is that there is no canon of literature being measured! The GOEs are a national test, but there is no national curriculum being tested. So, seminarians spend months preparing for questions that they may never have covered at any point in seminary, with very little guidance of what to read. Now, most of the time, the questions are fairly reasonable. But sometimes they aren't. Without a particular body of literature to refer to, there is no contstructive was to say "Gee, it didn't occur to any of us that we needed to teach premillenial dispensationalism in our history classes because none of these books really ever talk about it."
My other problem with the GOEs is the rapid fire nature of the questions. Each section is given for three hours - you get the question in the morning, and turn it in at noon, or get the question after lunch and turn it in at the end of the afternoon. Now, even in my very very limited time in ministry, I've discovered that the ability to find information quickly and to write cogently in a short period of time come in handy. However - the lack of this ability should not be enough to keep someone out of the ministry!
I wonder what it would do to (for?) our seminaries if there was a basic canon of literature for the seven GOE areas. I wonder what it would do for the clergy over time. I don't think that reading from certain lists would create cookie-cutter clergy - just because we read some of the same materials doesn't mean we all agree with them, or interpret them in the same way. If we don't agree on Biblical interpretations, why would we agree on Phyllis Trible's take on Genesis or Lathrop's endless juxtapositions? Luke has certainly read books and articles that aren't on the exam lists too - so it wouldn't necessarily lead to "teaching to the test" anymore than profs already try to do. At least there would be soemthing specific to teach to!
The level of anxiety raised by comprehensive tests is never going to be eliminated. But, I believe it could be alleviated with some reform - and the GOEs might end up being the useful diagnostic they really want to be, rather than the ambigous-at-best/hazing ritual/stumbling block to ministry that they seem to be in so many cases.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to put those rapid writing skills to good use... newsletter deadline is this week!