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Opposing views on evolution


Preparing and marking exams
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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I'd never prepared an exam before, I didn't know how to make exam, I'd never been a teaching fellow or teaching assistant or professor. And so I finally got together a good exam and then the blue books came all back and how should I rate them? And I started from the top down, according to the alphabet, and gave what I thought was the appropriate grade. And then I said, ‘Wait a day’, and then I did it again the next day, except I turned the pile over and started from the bottom and graded all the things. And then I compared the grades of yesterday with the grades of today, and fortunately quite often they were the same but there were quite a few discrepancy and then I had to go back again to the paper and see what… at… the latest analysis I would give. So it was a very painful process for me to learn all these things that a professor has to know, and there was one thing that very much bothered me. I had one student in the class, she was a very beautiful girl. Her name was Miss Eriksson, I still remember it. And she submitted a blue book in which she had… in which she answered all my questions correctly, but it was almost as if she had duplicated what I had said. In the whole thing – and there were several essay questions – there never was an original thought, there never was anything that indicate originality. It was all just regurgitating what I had said in the class. And I said, ‘Now what kind of a grade can I give her?’ She of course will expect an A but without any thought of her own in this thing, how can I give her an A? And I finally gave an A- and I'm quite sure that poor Miss Eriksson was deeply disappointed, she had everything right, how could I give her an A-? And even to the present day I feel just a little bit guilty that I didn't give her a straight A.

The late German-American biologist Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) was a leading light in the field of evolutionary biology, gaining a PhD at the age of 21. He was also a tropical explorer and ornithologist who undertook an expedition to New Guinea and collected several thousand bird skins. In 1931 he accepted a curatorial position at the American Museum of Natural History. During his time at the museum, aged 37, he published his seminal work 'Systematics and Origin of the Species' which integrated the theories of Darwin and Mendel and is considered one of his greatest works.

Listeners: Walter J. Bock

Walter J. Bock is Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Columbia University. He received his B.Sc. from Cornell and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. His research lies in the areas of organismal and evolutionary biology, with a special emphasis on functional and evolutionary morphology of the skeleto-muscular system, specifically the feeding apparatus of birds.

Tags: exam, teaching, professor, blue book, essay

Duration: 2 minutes, 9 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008