Saturday, November 7, 2009

Testing, testing

Tonight is Quiz Night at Memorial Episcopal Church, an event for which I prepared a few questions, and the occasion brought up recollections of what I fondly called “our brutal applicant test” at The Baltimore Sun.

The test I took in 1985 when applying to the copy desk* at The Sun was several pages of questions on general knowledge. Later, when I had become a manager, Andy Faith, then chief of the desk, greeted me one afternoon by muttering, “The test has been compromised.” Someone had gotten hold of it and handed out copies at a job fair. Andy invited me to revise it, and I made it mine.

For most of the past fourteen years, copy desk applicants who got past the first stage of scrutiny were invited to come to Calvert Street for a series of interviews and the test, which, in its final version, comprised two sections:

General knowledge: Ten questions each in twelve categories: arts, business and economics, current events, English, geography, history, law, literature, mathematics, religion, science and medicine, and sports.

Editing: A set of ten short passages presenting various problems of grammar, usage, clarity, and taste, followed by two short articles presenting a range of editing issues — all taken, mind you, from in-house copy.

Over the years, the general knowledge portion proved to be a reliable indicator of performance, within limits. That is, applicants who scored low tended not to carry enough furniture upstairs to be effective editors. People who scored well might or might not be successful — only one applicant ever scored above 90 percent on the general knowledge segment, and I subsequently fired her because she was an abrasive know-it-all who alienated her colleagues on the desk.

The general knowledge questions** were a mixture of the reasonably easy and the fairly recondite, but it was the former items that always surprised. There are things you would think that everybody knows. You would be mistaken. Perhaps shocked, particularly by the answers, or lack of them, by recent college graduates. (The eye-opener for the applicant was the editing portion, which revealed just how badly one could write and still be employed by a major newspaper.)

I toyed once with adding a bogus question for fun: “List the pharaohs of Egypt’s XVIIIth Dynasty, according to height,” but decided, especially after a couple of applicants left the building in tears, that the test as it stood was already cruel enough. Besides, Tutankhamun never really got his growth.

So if any of you out there would like to set up a test to torment potential employees, or run a quiz night for fun or to raise funds, it should be clear by now that I’m your man.

*At one time, reporters were also required to take the test, but by the 1980s the management had apparently decided that it was not important for reporters to know things. Now, of course, as newspapers have decided to do without editors, it is no longer important for anyone to know anything.

**I am reluctant to disclose details of the items on the test, even though the prospect that The Sun will ever hire another copy editor seems as remote as the restoration of the Hapsburgs.