If I hadn’t lost my hard copy of my 1996 GRE scores in a basement flood several years ago, my potential graduate school of choice informs me, I could have sent it. But as it stands, I ponied up my $140 to demonstrate my general intelligence on a test whose predictive validity for success has been given lukewarm confirmation at best, and downright contradicted at worst.  Oh and by the way, screw you, Howard Gardner.

The room was no bigger than my kitchen, set up into tiny cubicles. Its leader was Marlene. Marlene looked like a very nice lady, actually– yeasty, with kind, small eyes– someone who makes peanut butter cookies with crossed hashmarks using a fork. She chatted eagerly about the weather, as if she hadn’t seen it for awhile.

“Please copy the information disclaimer here in some form of cursive,” she directed me and the disheveled undergrad next to me. Her tone on the phrase “in some form of cursive” suggested that she had amended the original directions to reflect the realities of her day job.

“Cursive??” the young man blurted out, appalled.


The GRE has been substantially revised since I took it twelve years ago. In particular, it has been computerized, and a writing section has been added: in one prompt, to defend your opinion upon a given statement; and in another, to analyze the logic and rhetoric of a given passage. I started the first section three times before typing in frustration, “An honest response? This prompt is ridiculous.”– and then actually kept the sentence in. In the second task I dared further, doing all the analysis the test was requiring within a fictitious context I constructed of a young man in Arizona, besotted with a diffident woman from Alaska he met at a cactus-breeding conference.

I’d talk to you more about the questions, but there’s a special level of Guantanamo Bay reserved for people who reveal the contents of the GRE, along with folks who rip the tags off of mattresses and try makeup in the pharmacy using tubes that are not marked “SAMPLER.”

This sense of silliness probably did not serve me well, but was not entirely my fault. I blame the video and audio-taped room, the tiny locker into which I placed all my possessions prior to entering my cubicle, the fact that I was not allowed to hang my sweater over the back of my chair– and that the exam is produced in exactly the same font as is used by the computer Joshua in “Wargames.”


As I signed out, Marlene’s kind eyes turned into marbles. “Your results will be mailed to you within 10-15 business days,” she intoned, and then hoped I would have a nice holiday. I caught a glimpse of the work schedule behind her desk: Marlene, it said, penciled onto today’s date. And then, through the month: Marlene. Marlene. Marlene. Marlene.

But luckily for this story, this was not the day’s final word.

Leaving the strip mall where the testing center was located, I stumbled on a tiny hidden photography exhibit. The artist apparently takes all his spare time to find small portraits in nature and take time-lapse pictures of them.

I walked slowly from picture to picture, peeling my forbidden orange, reading the captions. Stones in the river. Ice from the Lake. Sunset at the bluffs. Beechwood.

And I felt a little better.

12 thoughts on “Skinner-Dipping

  1. Cactus breeding conference?! No learned helplessness for you! I think we should visit the Artisan Works (565 Blossom Rd)- for further revitilization of standardized test grey… 🙂

  2. Please, oh please, did you flip through the directions on how to use the computer? Graphics on how to use a mouse that match the font!

    Glad the photo exhibit redeemed the outing.

  3. @Sarah: Oh, yes, I did that too, just in case the GRE computer hardware was somehow different than every other computer on the planet. Leaving nothing to chance, you know. Very entertaining.

  4. You’ll laugh at this. 740 verbal, 510 math. This means in whatever doctoral dissertation I write my data will be inexorably screwed up, but I will be able to talk about it with complete persuasiveness. Just like Colin Powell.

    I have a couple of grad school options I’m kicking around; will know more in the spring. One possible thesis is doing research on how Web 2.0 has changed our skill sets and concepts of verbal literacy; so eventually I might be able to shed some light on your as-of-yet wildly anecdotal statement that video is more effective than text in teaching kids how to read and write. 😉

  5. Don’t know yet (pros and cons to both approaches). But wouldn’t tell the blogosphere before my students if I did. 🙂

  6. Oooh. I like the thesis idea on Web 2.0. It can be a qualitative study and you can suggest further research that’s quantitative. 🙂

    I totally approve of waiting to share plans online until you’re confident enough in them that students know. (It’s what I’m doing.)

  7. Oops. Accidentally erased my last comment here. To sum: I told Sarah I annoy lots of people by my insistence on the paramount importance of qualitative data. I told Dan I would be happy pretty much doing anything with a Ph.D, as long as it kept me in touch with literacy, the classroom, and kids.

  8. I thought you already had a Ph.D., based on some comment you wrote somewhere about thesis-writing, I think, and so I had been wondering what on earth you needed GRE-scores for after the event. Anyway, there’s one misunderstanding cleared up. Perhaps you were referring to a thesis for a Master’s? If so, what was your topic?

  9. H– hope your opinion of me has not suffered. 😉 Nope, we did a portfolio for our Master’s. Perhaps I was joking around about a thesis. I do that a lot. There’s about 12 potential ones floating around my life, including in science, religion, sociology and international peace studies. Reincarnation would serve me well on this point.

    And I still owe you cookies!

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