February 12, 2010

GRE's + Pessimism

GRE scores are all about the management and administration of large groups of students. We all know it, even if we pretend that they really measure something important. Grad programs need a number to try to assess the "ability" of incoming students. It amazes me that anthropologists buy into this nonsense. Especially considering what they study.

I can understand why grad schools use them, but that doesn't mean I agree with the practice. To me, they measure how well someone does on the GRE, and not much else.

Both times I took the GRE's I felt that the whole process was a nonsensical waste of four hours of my life. It felt like prison, or the panopticon, or like I had done something wrong. What's with all the security? Are those numbers REALLY that important? Obviously, I am not a fan of rigid standardized tests. Maybe they work for math majors or something--but for anthropology? Another multiple choice test...to get into grad school? I really resisted the whole process and actually wanted to boycott it. But I didn't, since those damn tests are required. So much for protest.

There's a word for that: hegemony. We all uphold our own downfall, or something like that.

I took the GRE's once before my master's, and once before starting my PhD program. None of the questions on the test had anything to do with what I had learned in years of studying anthropology. ZERO. Plenty of questions about the prices of sodas and apples and such, but nothing about anthropology. Nothing about participant observation, nothing about the four fields, and nothing about the importance of the work of Eric Wolf. Nothing about postmodernism, nothing about feminist anthropology, and nothing about Foucault. Not a word about archaeology, or primatology, or anything that was discovered in East Africa about 4.4 million years ago. Evolution? Nope. The concept of culture--no deals. Apples, sodas, and geometry questions. I found the test to be more irritating than anything else. Why not ask me about the actual theories and methods of the discipline that I studied? Why not ask me what anthropology in the 21st century will look like? Or, why not just look at the academic record that I already had?

The writing portion, which is basically speed essay writing with no sources, was a joke--at least for how I learned to do background research and write papers. Who writes a good paper in 45 minutes? How is that a measure of good anthropology? Is that a test of a possible career as an anthropological journalist who has tight deadlines?

Overall, I think that the GRE ordeal is a racket. ETS has quite a deal being the only game in town. It amazes me that this doesn't seem problematic to anyone. Why isn't there any competition? Why aren't there other testing alternatives, especially if the test is required by most grad programs? If there are alternatives, where are they? Why aren't they made more available?

It amazes me that anthropology departments around the country place any stock in these tests. But, since that's what grad programs want, why don't undergrad programs stop focusing on anthropology and start teaching to the test? Forget Malinowski--undergrads need to learn all about trick questions, grocery store math problems, and the keys to reading really poorly written "critical reading" sections. Undergrads don't need to learn about the importance of anthropology, and what can and should be done with it--we should focus their education solely on getting really good at taking stupid standardized tests. Then GRE scores will skyrocket, and everyone will be happy. We'll have great numbers to work with, and we can phase out useless things like essays, etc. We need more numbers.


anonymous said...

Totally agree with you but that's the way it is. Do you remember any of the questions on the quantitative part? I'm really stressing out about it

Ryan Anderson said...


It's only the way it is because we all allow it. There is no reason why there cannot be a change to this part of the application process--all it takes is grad programs who are willing to do something about it. That's what I think.

Conor said...

Some grad programs (aka some, if not all, UC schools) rely on these tests to weed out the numerous applicants. Although, i do definitely agree that schools place way too much importance on these stupid standardized tests.

Ryan Anderson said...

hey conor,

ya, it's pretty much something they do in order to manage data and people in a somewhat efficient way. still, i am not sure what that tells us about our education system if this is the filter that we use to admit some people and not others. i don't understand why they don't just rely on undergrad GPA and performance.

Conor said...

I think that if they relied on GPAs (numbers!) and prior performance, there may be too many "other" factors like difficulty of school curriculum, reputation, etc. They may even need to take into account random factors such as employment history (how do you decide between someone that worked full time vs. part time vs. no time throughout their undergrad? What about if someone has a child that occupies much of their time and energy?). It would be a much more holistic approach, but would it be effective?

I still think the GRE is inherently flawed though and they should develop program specific entrance exams...although this would actually require some real work on behalf of ETS

Ryan Anderson said...

Ya, GPA's aren't much better, really.

I guess we could go back to what UC Santa Cruz used to do--no grades, just written evaluations. But that didn't work too well for the whole management of large groups of people thing...

Work for the ETS people? What?

douglas said...

Agreed. The GREs are completely irrelevant and can only serve to stifle academic performance. Imagine all of the somewhat-reserved, brilliant students who avoid graduate school because of the GREs. It's quite sad, really. Like you said, the only thing they measure is how well one can take the GRE. Fortunately, many departments don't put too much weight on them.