The test that awards an English professor 33 per cent for literacy

April 18, 1997

Every so often I find myself sitting my finals over again - in dreams. Sometimes as the sweating youth I was once, utterly panicky about not being able to conceal the zillions of black holes in my tremulous grasp of Eng. lit. from the hawk-eyed beaks patrolling the aisles and soon to carry off my foul papers for mirthful private consumption. Sometimes as the greying don of the present, stupidly testing myself, for no doubt deeply worrying reasons, against the whizzo young all around me, and doing badly - though so far the nightmare has always broken off conveniently before the lamentable results get announced.

So I am not, you will deduce, one to approach any test with glee, especially not one designed to reveal my unreadiness for work, and of course, for readies, out there in the harsh world beyond the quadrangle. And I cannot be alone in thinking that by the time they have graduated people have done enough exams and that potential examiners should have real reasons for wanting to expose people any further to their awfulness.

Apart from the usual testee anxieties, my main response to the GET tests was that if employers are going to trust three thin, muddled and muddling 20-minute investigations more than the usual roster of A-level marks, degree results, references and interviews that they have relied on thus far, then they are more in thrall to the bogus sociopsychobabble mongered in our business schools than I feared, and quite deserving of years more of losing out to the Germans and Japanese.

The Computing Awareness test tested very little. Any of my undergraduates would yawn through it. I, to whom secretaries have to explain slowly the difference between a boot and a shoe, a port and a glass of spirituous liquid, got 66 per cent for word processing. Sixty-six per cent! My children would be astonished. So would anybody who unwisely gave me a job on the strength of it.

Perhaps Part One is there just to make you feel alright. The Personal Working Style Profile quiz that follows - testing, you are told, your "interpersonal abilities" and your "effectiveness in maintaining professional relationships in a working environment" - clearly matters a lot more. It is designed, the promoters say, to give the examinee real pause, to encourage serious thought about the self. But its mixture of broad sweep, Catch-22 and contradictoriness contrived to disconcert.

Here you get a sequence of threefold propositions to select from, all in the form "I am the sort of person who...", of which you are allowed each time only two choices, a Least and a Most. But how is one to take seriously such toothsome oppositions as: "I am the sort of person who: writes clearly and concisely; puts other people at their ease; likes tasks with step-by-step instructions"? Choose writing clearly as the thing you want Most, and you are left with Least liking putting people at their ease (so you sound like the sort of monster who prefers making other people uncomfortable) or with Least liking to follow step-by-step instructions (so you are a dangerously arrogant type who could not assemble an Ikea coffee table or work out how the office photocopier functions). On the other hand, if you say you Most like putting people at their ease (I'm Mr Nice Guy, you would love me on the team) you are still left with the idiotic arrogance posture or with saying you do not care greatly for being clear in your writing (so you get Most pleasure from expressing yourself muddledly, huh?).

And what about "I'm the sort of person who: believes others should accept me as I am; speaks fluently; believes there are limits to what can be achieved"? You are simply stupid if you do not believe there are always inevitably, limits; but opting for that human truism will be at the expense of speaking fluently or of wanting to be accepted as you are - with the implicit corollary of not thinking others should be accepted as they are, which is one basis of humanity and civilisation and democracy. And so it goes on. To be compelled to weave your way through this maze, with no wavers, no misses, no adding of riders is not just silly, it is kind of dementing. The victim is made to feel like the fabled chameleon set down on the tartan rug which explodes with the impossible effort of turning itself so many different colours. What price here either seriousness or sincerity?

My Predicted Management Style certificate was full of sentences like "You may be seen as insensitive at times and/but you cope with difficult behaviour in others when necessary". And/but: my feelings precisely. And/but not a judgement worth paying Pounds 85 plus to have, nor one to help an employer more than a very short interview would. And/but, too, a weaselly vagueness only to be predicted from the chaos of choices on offer.

And the Business Awareness quiz - the attempt to "meet employers' concerns that graduates are aware of issues in the world of work and can solve problems" (a lousy sentence in its own right, that, and not one to fill you with confidence that these people can be the judges of anything much). Here there is a bit of arithmetic, some multiple choice questions about Europe, ozone, crime, the law on health and safety and sex discrimination and such: all fair enough, though not particularly taxing, and nothing you would not pick up on your first morning in the relevant job if need be. (I got 66 per cent on Legal Principles, and a stonking 100 per cent on Green Issues.) But what about Grammar?

Graduates nowadays, as we all know and everybody out there thinks, cannot spell and are a bunch of illiterate louts who got their firsts and seconds because softy examiners let them get away with linguistic murder, so this test should really sort out the linguistically high-flying managers of the future from the mere phoneys and upstarts. Select, you were told, the grammatically correct example from the following group: "I am totally disinterested in fashion. I find it boring"; "I cannot agree with you about him being selected for the job"; "I asked who was at the door. 'It is me', you said"; "There were chances at each end of the field in the early part of the match." The trouble is that, for my money, there are at least three grammatically sound sets of words here. I guess that it is "him being selected" and "It is me" that are thought short on grammar. But the alternatives, "his being selected" and "It is I", now sound distinctly prissy and old grammar and are rarely used by real speakers. Certainly, "It is me" is the one I would hope my employees would encourage, say, their German counterparts to practise as best modern English usage. As for "disinterested": you are, of course, strictly, not disinterested if you find something boring - even if you are the kind of person who is not rather bored by this old pedagogic chestnut of uninterest versus disinterest and who does not feel it should be allowed to die quietly. But, more to the point, the point about disinterest is not a grammatical one, but an issue rather of semantics. Those disinterest sentences are perfectly good grammar. They are just semantically awry. So I - experimentally, if provocatively - opted for them as such and duly got 33 per cent for "literacy". I do hope it was not one of my graduates who devised the question. I hope, too, that all of my graduates would argue the toss about this at interview. But then, that is why mechanistic testing is a blunter instrument than interviews by human beings are.

At the end of your ordeal they will not let you have a printout of the test questions to go with your assessment documents - after all this is material it has taken years to perfect. I even had to argue my journalistic right to keep a notebook of my own open in the test-room. And when my nice but cautious minder went off to check whether I could take my notes away I found myself, espionage-fashion, ripping out the relevant pages, shoving them in a pocket and preparing, deceivingly, to hand over instead a page of stuff about the Stratford Miracle Plays. So my Predicted Management Style profile got something sussed right after all. "You may encourage others to follow your example in bending the rules in order to succeed."

The rule-bending question was almost the only one I really warmed to. For once, too, a question you could answer without worrying over its disconcerting team-mates - ones about whether you Most or Least liked dead babies or beating your wife.

Valentine Cunningham is professor of English literature at Oxford and a fellow of Corpus Christi College.

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