“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Taking the GRE again after 10 Years

            I had it timed: if I went to the bathroom at 8:25, I’d be finishing up the essay portion of the test about ten minutes after my bladder was full again. Caffeine being essential for me to get into the proper state of mind for writing, I’d woken up to three cans of Diet Mountain Dew and two and half rather large cups of coffee. I knew I might not get called in to take the test precisely at 8:30, but I figured I could handle the pressure, as it were. The clock in the office of the test center read 8:45 when I walked in. Paperwork, signatures, getting a picture taken, turning out all my pockets (where I managed to keep my three talismans concealed)—by the time I was sitting down in the carrel—in a room that might serve as a meeting place for prisoners and their lawyers—it was after 9:00. And there were still more preliminaries to go through.

            Test takers are allotted 45 minutes for an essay on the “Issue Topic” prompted by a short quote. The “Analysis of an Argument” essay takes a half hour. The need to piss got urgent with about ten minutes left on the clock for the issue essay. By the end of the second essay, I was squirming and dancing and pretty desperate. Of course, I had to wait for our warden to let me out of the testing room. And then I had to halt midway through the office to come back and sign myself out. Standing at the urinal—and standing and standing—I had plenty of time to consider how poorly designed my strategy had been. I won’t find out my scores for the essay portion for ten or so days.

            I’ve been searching my apartment for the letter with my official scores from the first time I took the GRE about ten years ago. I’d taken it near the end of the summer, at one of those times in life of great intellectual awakening. With bachelor’s degrees in both anthropology and psychology, and with only the most inchoate glimmerings of a few possible plans for the future, I lived in my dad’s enormous house with my oldest brother, who had returned after graduating from Notre Dame and was now taking graduate courses at IPFW, my alma mater, and some roommates. I delivered pizzas in the convertible Mustang I bought as a sort of hand-me-down from that same brother. And I spent hours every day reading.

            I’m curious about the specific date of the test because it would allow me place it in the context of what I was reading. It would also help me ascertain the amount of time I spent preparing. If memory serves, I was doing things like pouring over various books by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, trying to decide which one of them knew the real skinny on how evolution works. I think by then I’d read Frank Sulloway’s Born to Rebel, in which he applied complex statistics to data culled from historical samples and concluded that later-born siblings tend to be less conscientious but more open to new ideas and experiences. I was delighted to hear that the former president had read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and thought it tragically unimaginable that the current president would ever read anything like that. At some point, I began circling words I didn’t recognize or couldn’t define so when I was finished with the chapter I could look them up and make a few flashcards.

            I’m not even sure the flashcards were in anticipation of the GRE. Several of my classmates in both the anthropology and psychology departments had spoken to me by then of their dejection upon receiving their scores. I was scared to take it. The trend seemed to be that everyone was getting about a hundred points less on this test than they did on the SAT. I decided I only really cared about the verbal reasoning section, and a 620 on that really wasn’t acceptable. Beyond the flashcards, I got my hands on a Kaplan CD-ROM from a guy at school and started doing all the practice tests on it. The scores it gave me hovered in the mid-600s. It also gave me scads of unfamiliar words (like scad) to put in my stack of flashcards, which grew, ridiculously, to the height of about a foot.

            I don’t remember much about the test itself. It was at a Sylvan Learning Center that closed a while back. One of the reading comprehension excerpts was on chimpanzees, which I saw as a good sign. When I was done, there was a screen giving me a chance to admit I cheated. It struck me as odd. Then came the screen with my scores—800 verbal reasoning. I looked around the room and saw nothing but the backs of silent test-takers. Could this be right? I never ace anything. It sank in when I was sitting down in the Mustang. Driving home on I-69, I sang along to “The Crush” by Dave Matthews, elated.

            I got accepted into MIT’s program in science writing based on that score and a writing sample in which I defended Frank Sulloway’s birth order theory against Judith Rich Harris, the author of The Nurture Assumption, another great book. But Harris’s arguments struck me as petty and somewhat disgraceful. She was engaging in something akin to a political campaign against a competing theory, rather than making a good faith effort to discover the truth. Anyway, the article I wrote got long and unwieldy. Michael Shermer considered it for publication in Skeptic but ultimately declined because I just didn’t have my chops up when it came to writing about science. By then, I was a writer of fiction.

            That’s why upon discovering how expensive a year in Cambridge would be and how little financial aid I’d be getting I declined MIT's invitation to attend their program. If being a science writer was my dream, I’d have gone. But I decided to hold out for an acceptance to an MFA program in creative writing. I’d already applied two years in row before stretching my net to include science writing. But the year I got accepted at MIT ended up being the third year of summary rejection on the fiction front. I had one more year before that perfect GRE score expired.

            Year four went the same way all the other years had gone. I was in my late twenties now and had the feeling whatever opportunities that were once open to me had slipped away. Next came a crazy job at a restaurant—Lucky’s—and a tumultuous relationship with the kitchen manager. After I had to move out of the apartment I shared with her in the wake of our second breakup (there would be a third), I was in a pretty bad place. But I made the smartest decision I’d made in a while and went back to school to get my master’s in English at IPFW.

            The plan was to improve my qualifications for creative writing programs. And now that I’m nearly finished with the program I put re-taking the GRE at the top of my list for things to do this summer. In the middle of May, I registered to take it on June 22nd. I’d been dreading it ever since my original score expired, but now I was really worried. What would it mean if I didn’t get an 800 again? What if I got significantly lower than that? The MFA programs I’ll be applying to are insanely competitive: between five hundred and a thousand applicants for less than a dozen spaces. At the same time, though, there was a sense that a lower score would serve as this perfect symbol for just how far I’d let my life go off-track.

            Without much conscious awareness of what I was doing, I started playing out a Rocky narrative, or some story like Mohammed Ali making his comeback after losing his boxing license for refusing to serve in Vietnam. I would prove I wasn’t a has-been, that whatever meager accomplishments I had under my belt weren’t flukes. Last semester I wrote a paper on how to practice to be creative, and one of the books I read for it was K. Anders Ericsson’s The Road to Excellence. So, after signing up for the test I created a regimen of what Ericsson calls “deliberate practice,” based on anticipation and immediate feedback. I got my hands on as many sample items and sample tests I could find. I made little flashcards with the correct answers on them to make the feedback as close as possible to the hazarded answer. I put hours and hours into it. And I came up with a strategy for each section, and for every possible contingency I could think of. I was going to beat the GRE, again, through sheer force of will.

            The order of the sections is variable. Ideally, the verbal section would have come first after the essay section so I wouldn’t have to budget my stores of concentration. But sitting down again after relieving my bladder I saw the quantitative section appear before me on the screen. Oh well, I planned for this too, I thought. I adhered pretty well to my strategy of working for a certain length of time to see if I could get the answer and then guessing if it didn’t look promising. And I achieved my goal for this section by not embarrassing myself. I got a 650.

            The trouble began almost immediately when the verbal questions starting coming. The strategy for doing analogies, the questions I most often missed in practice, was to work out the connection between the top words, “the bridge,” before considering the five word couples below to see which one has the same bridge. But because the screen was so large, and because I was still jittery from the caffeine, I couldn’t read the first word pair without seeing all the others. I abandoned the strategy with the first question.

            Then disaster struck. I’d anticipated only two sets of reading comprehension questions, but then, with the five minute warning already having passed, another impossibly long blurb appeared. I resign myself at that point to having to give up my perfect score. I said to myself, “Just read it quick and give the best answers you can.” I finished the section with about twenty seconds left. At least all the antonyms had been easy. Next came an experimental section I agreed to take since I didn’t need to worry about flagging concentration anymore. For the entire eighteen minutes it took, I sat there feeling completely defeated. I doubt my answers for that section will be of much use.

            Finally, I was asked if I wanted to abandon my scores—a ploy, I’m sure to get skittish people to pay to take the test twice. I said no, and clicked to see and record my scores. There it was at the top of the screen, my 800. I’d visualized the moment several times. I was to raise one arm in victory—but I couldn’t because the warden would just think I was raising my hand to signal I needed something. I also couldn’t because I didn’t feel victorious. I still felt defeated. I was sure all the preparation I’d done had been completely pointless. I hadn’t boxed. I’d clenched my jaw, bunched up my fist, and brawled.

            I listened to “The Crush” on the way home again, but as I detoured around all the construction downtown I wasn’t in a celebratory mood. I wasn’t elated. I was disturbed. The experience hadn’t been at all like a Rocky movie. It was a lot more like Gattaca. I’d come in, had my finger pricked so they could read my DNA, and had the verdict delivered to me. Any score could have come up on the screen. I had no control over it. That it turned out to be the one I was after was just an accident. A fluke.

            The week before I took the test, I’d met a woman at Columbia Street who used to teach seventh graders. After telling her I taught Intro Comp at IPFW, we discussed how teaching is a process of translation from how you understand something into a language that will allow others who lack your experience and knowledge to understand it. Then you have to add some element of entertainment so you don’t lose their attention. The younger the students, the more patience it takes to teach them. Beginning when I was an undergrad working in the Writing Center, but really picking up pace as I got more and more experience as a TA, the delight I used to feel in regard to my own cleverness was being superseded by the nagging doubt that I could ever pass along the method behind it to anyone.

            When you’re young (or conservative), it’s easy to look at people who don’t do as well as you with disdain, as if it’s a moral failing on their part. You hold the conviction deep in your gut that if they merely did what you’ve done they’d have what you have or know what you know. Teaching disabuses you of this conviction (which might be why so many teachers are liberal). How many times did I sit with a sharp kid in the writing center trying to explain some element of college writing to him or her, trying to think back to how I had figured it out, and realizing either that I’d simply understood it without much effort or arrived at an understanding through a process that had already failed this kid? You might expect such a realization would make someone feel really brilliant. But in fact it’s humbling. You wonder how many things there are, fascinating things, important things, that despite your own best effort you’ll never really get. Someone, for instance, probably “just gets” how to relay complex information to freshman writers—just gets teaching.

            And if, despite your efforts, you’re simply accorded a faculty for perceiving this or understanding that, if you ever lose it your prospects for recreating the same magic are dismal. What can be given can be taken away. Finally, there’s the question of desert. That I can score an 800 on the verbal reasoning section of the GRE is not tied to my effort or to my will. I like to read, always have. It’s not work to me. My proficiency is morally arbitrary. And yet everyone will say about my accomplishments and accolades, “You deserve it.”

            Really, though, this unsettled feeling notwithstanding, this is some stupid shit to complain about. I aced the GRE—again. It’s time to celebrate.


Leigh said...

Dennis, I won't tell you that you're smart...you know that. What I will tell you is that you are a wonderful writer. You know how scandalously arbitrary the selection process for MFA's can be, so no matter what, remember that you don't just write...you are a writer. And I so am expecting a signed copy of your first book. ;-D

Dennis said...

Thank you Leigh. The second copy goes to you (gotta send the first to Mom, you know how it is).