Many years ago, one of my juniors answered one of his his mid-term exam essays in gorgeous, Ciceronian Latin. It was a pretty fine essay; with a bonus for the Latin I gave him 9.5/10. It will come as no surprise that he went on to study Classics at the University of Virginia.
I have never seen such a performance since then, but I encourage my students every year to try to dominate the essays with more than mere knowledge. Wisdom! Synthesis! Be remarkable! This year, for the first time, one of them tried his hand at composing all his essays, both mid-term and final, in the quaestio format of the Scholastics.
Regrettably, this more recent student is not quite as good as my classics genius from bygone years. The content in each respondeo is just too thin, barely stating the conclusion and devoid of argument or exploration. Many claims are dubious or flat-out wrong. In comparison to the excitement of seeing the format, the delivery is a letdown.
However–and this is a big however!–this all turns out to be for the best. The failed content delivery makes all the more evident the strengths of the quaestio format, which in turn allows me to see the things my student does get right.
The objections are extremely well-chosen and show a nearly perfect framing for the question even when he makes mistakes in them. They could be worded better to imitate St. Thomas, and they could certainly be polished up for greater argumentative effect, but for a student effort they are really good. By laying them out in system, he made it easy for me to see that he gets the question–something many of my students with higher test scores fail to do.
The method makes all the more evident that his argument–what I call the kung-fu stage of each article–is weak. The faults are glaringly obvious when stripped of all the rhetorical flim-flam that students use in hopeless attempts to veil their ignorance. It’s my job to see through the flim-flam and not be cozened by it; in the quaestio method we have an honesty and humility that makes my job far easier.
It’s not just easier to grade. It’s easier to correct. I could sit down with a student and conference over such a project to dramatic effect. Redirection is easy when the work is laid out so nicely. Indeed, I could run a suitable Oxford tutorial-style class around this kind of project (assuming I had the luxury of time and assuming all my students put forth a commitment equal to this one).
So here is the glorious failure in all its hideous strength (numerous spelling errors of a dyslexic boy corrected). Enjoy: Continue reading Form V Final: Strength of the Quaestio