In the spring, I had a new challenge—grading an oral final Exam. Lucky for me, I was the second grader and my wonderful colleague took the lead. Since I was also unfamiliar with how oral Exams are done, it was easier to follow his lead.
The typical oral Exam format: student delivers a presentation, professors (and in some cases outside examiners) ask questions, student leaves the room as the graders confer, student is called back into the room and told their grade. The last part was the most daunting part for me—face-to-face grading!
But we did something different than the norm. Rather than ask the students to present on the content of the course (bodies, minds, and movements), they were asked to complete an “in practice” project and then present their project to us. When we introduced the assignment, there was panic, frustration, and some anger. What we were asking them to do required them to step out of their comfort zones. In almost every case, the students rose to the occasion as they took the content from their research papers out into the real world.
They produced blogs and podcasts and magazine articles as well as a commercial campaign for #NeverAgain, a website for veterans to access yoga tools, and a polyamory community/activist group. One student created a zine about anarchist body-building; another created a series of illustrated children’s stories that incorporated American studies ideas; another created a pamphlet to encourage women of color to run for public office. One student taught in a high school setting and five students taught lessons in my online summer school class that I taught at my home institution. Several students stepped way out of their comfort zones and produced art. But what was so special about these oral Exams was less about what the students produced and more about what they learned—about the subject matter, about the field of American studies, and about themselves.
I realized about half way through the oral Exams, that this was the most I had ever heard some of these students talk. And I talked with a lot of my students—from short conversations to sustained meetings discussing their ideas. But in the oral Exam, they took the floor, they ran the show, they told us about their work. It was refreshing and invigorating and inspiring in most cases. In some cases it was awkward. But almost every student shared their passion with us in an Exam that was more like a conversation.
There couldn’t have been a better conclusion to my time teaching and learning in Denmark. As most any teacher would agree, it’s the students who make our work worthwhile. When we can challenge our students—and they take on that challenge and produce amazing work—there is no better reward. Well, maybe cake.