The Art of Asking Questions: The Senior Exhibition Process at St. Andrew's
Annie Roach ’18

 

The English exhibition process is one of the central components of the academic experience at St. Andrew's. In an exhibition, a student meets with some combination of English faculty and peers to discuss an analytical paper they have written on a selected text; the goal of the discussion is to give the student the opportunity to self-evaluate and re-evaluate his or her thinking and writing. Exhibitions are designed to be at once conversational and scholarly.

The idea for exhibition process began in the late 1990s, when current English Department Chair Elizabeth Roach and then-Academic Dean and English teacher Monica Matouk were brainstorming ideas on how to teach writing and argumentation more effectively. They began to put small groups of students together to read each other’s papers, give feedback, and assess their own work. They saw that these “mini-exhibitions,” as they called them, very effectively helped students to further develop their writing, argumentation, and self-evaluation skills. Roach described the exhibition process as follows in the Winter 1997 issue of the St. Andrew's Magazine:

It is not so much the act of correcting papers [that frustrates teachers]—for in fact, often students present in their papers original and exciting readings of texts which are interesting and provocative—but [rather] making the same corrections on the same papers over and over again, of writing long comments which may or may not be read, let alone understood, of not really knowing if the student will respond to your critique in a constructive way, of being completely detached from the student at a critical point in the learning process. I have tried many strategies to close this gap, to find some assurance that the process is working. But I have never experienced so much satisfaction as this fall when Monica Matouk and I combined our classes for what we called mini-exhibitions.

An exhibition is a way for students to demonstrate their abilities by orally defending, discussing and developing their ideas.... After dividing our classes into groups of three, we ask students to consider the papers' thesis, evaluate the quality of the argument, and explore ways to improve or refine the argument. We also encourage the students to engage in a rigorous discussion during the exhibition, an exploration of ideas, a collaborative approach to improve and refine the papers' arguments.

I have tried this instruction in different ways for many years, but this fall, I could actually see the students experiencing epiphanies; I heard them articulate their understanding clearly and logically. And this is really the key to the process: students must come to the recognitions themselves. I must question them in a way which allows them to articulate their strengths and weaknesses as writers and thinkers. It makes me, as a teacher, accountable for explaining my criticisms, my suggestions clearly and thoroughly, for making sure that my comments are not vague. In turn, the students often make teachers see the works of literature in new, dynamic ways; because of the intimate setting, the conversations are more in depth than a larger class discussion. Paper-correcting becomes a dialogue, rather than a process which separates students from their teacher.

The exhibition process has evolved and taken several forms over the last twenty years, and today a student's literary education at St. Andrew's culminates in the senior exhibition, in which students spends the winter term of their senior year independently writing an eight to ten-plus page paper on a selected text, then discusses that paper with two or more English faculty members in a 40 minute exhibition. This can be a daunting process, given that so much of the St. Andrew’s English curriculum is centered around gathering ideas from peers and collaborative thinking during class discussions; prior to the senior exhibition, English writing assignments ask students to analyze a portion of a text that they have read and previously discussed as a class. However, most students find that the work they have done during their time at St. Andrew’s has prepared them well to independently analyze a novel as a whole, and many students find the process immensely rewarding. 

Leandre Pestcoe ’19, who wrote her senior exhibition paper on Colum McCann’s Transatlantic, explained that the process of choosing an analytical lens was challenging but integral to her growth as a writer. “I think it can feel overwhelming to say, ‘How am I supposed to analyze this whole book?’" she said. "But my teachers helped me see that I wasn’t analyzing the whole book—I was analyzing a specific part of the book, and through that specific part, I was talking about it as a whole.” 

One of the goals of any exhibition is for students imagine what the next version of their papers would look like, the philosophy being that there’s always more thinking to do and room to expand and complicate one's ideas. Even if students won’t actually end up producing another draft of their paper, teachers aid the students in envisioning what a next draft could look like and ask the necessary questions to help them achieve that vision. In the process, “students learn the art of asking questions,” Roach says.

The English Department stresses the importance of reading and then rereading, over and over. In the senior exhibition, a close reading of the text is the only tool a student has to construct his or her arguments, so rereading is absolutely essential. Not only does rereading help students gain a better understanding of the author’s project, text and subject become more legible and in some cases, simply more enjoyable once a student has engaged with it multiple times. Ann Yancey Bassett ’19 wrote her senior exhibition paper on Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits and found the process of rereading especially helpful: “I appreciated [the book] a lot more the second time that I read it. Things were a lot clearer after going back and rereading the book, after having read the ending,” she said. Frances Malley ’19, who did her exhibition on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, agreed, noting that she repeatedly reread the ending of the novel. Doing so enabled her to discern the central moments in the text, and choose which of those moments she wanted to think more deeply about. Rereading allows students to get to know their chosen book as well as possible and orient themselves to the author’s vision. 

When asked about the most challenging part of the senior exhibition process, the answer was almost unanimous. Students found that staying patient and trusting the process was particularly difficult, especially because the reliable guidance of class discussion was no longer available to them as a tool. Noor El-Baradie ’19, who wrote her senior exhibition paper on Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, described the nervousness she felt when reviewing the assignment for the first time: “I remember looking at the exhibition process and thinking, ‘Oh, my God, this is huge. Am I going to be able to do this?’” After hours of rewriting, restructuring, and rethinking her paper, she realized that she could do it, and that is what she takes away most from the process. “It felt so good to know that I was capable of writing a twelve-page paper about a book all by myself. I’m so happy and proud of all the work I did,” she said. 

Unlike other exhibitions, the senior exhibition involves a second faculty reader. Along with the student’s English 4 teacher, another member of the English Department is chosen to read and evaluate the student’s paper and ask questions during the exhibition. The "two-to-one" faculty-student ration can nerve-wracking for many students in the lead-up to the exhibition. Pestcoe described the nervousness she felt in having a second faculty reader, and how those concerns were immediately alleviated when she arrived at the actual exhibition: “[Before the exhibition] I felt like I almost had to prove myself, in a way,” she recalled. "I went into the exhibition and we talked about my paper, but we also just talked about the book in general. I didn’t feel in any way like I had to prove myself or that I had to defend my intellectual argument.” This perspective highlights one of the most important parts of the exhibition project—the ability to have a casual yet intellectually stimulating conversation without feeling like you are being tested or evaluated.

For teachers, it’s important to strike a balance between letting the student do as much independent thinking as possible, while also guiding them through the process and providing necessary help along the way. “[We’re] supporting and guiding them, but also giving them that space to explore and discover and totally own the project,” said Roach. Most of the time, the guidance and support comes in the form of asking questions—questions that will push the student’s thinking and allow them to consider aspects of the text that they had not previously considered. Bassett, who took the interdisciplinary course History, Literature, and the Contested Past (more commonly referred to as "Humanities"), emphasized that her teachers—Roach and History Department Chair Emily Pressman—were especially good at communicating with her throughout the process: “I just needed to initiate the conversation and voice what was going on in my mind, and then they continued to layer their questions in a really strategic way that ultimately led me to finding the answers that I was looking for.”

Students also emphasize the importance of developing a sense of trust between themselves and their teachers, noting that it was often difficult to "trust the process" when they seemed to reach a roadblock in their writing or thinking. As students and alumni can attest, the constant refrain of St. Andrew's teachers is “Just keep writing, and it will come to you.” Bassett saw the writing and drafting process as absolutely crucial, even when she felt that she wasn’t going anywhere with her writing. “All the thoughts I had in my head started to make sense once they were put on paper and I could reorder them, and copy and paste them in different ways where I could actually formulate an argument,” she said.

In April 2019, Roach and Pressman took a group of their students to New York City for a St. Andrew's book club event, held annually for parents and alumni. That spring's book was Transatlantic by Colum McCann, and the author himself attended the book club discussion. Students who had written their senior exhibition papers on Transatlantic were able to discuss the text with its author—and had the confidence to share their own analyses of the novel. Roach noted that McCann was “completely blown away” and moved by the sophistication and poise of the students.

“To me," Roach concluded, "that was the ultimate exhibition."
    

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