Parallel lives

March 30, 2007

An academic and his undergraduate son at the same university offer different perspectives on an issue. This month: exams

The Father

We are losing a colleague this week, something that always rattles us more than we care to admit. It is almost a truism to say that we don't realise what people do until they've gone, but that doesn't stop it being accurate.

The departure means, of course, that later today I will need to leave off ploughing through this set of essays and wander down to the coffee room where the infamous number two buffet (the one with the leathery chicken goujons and leaden samosas) will be waiting.

Once we are all gathered, the Prof will tell a few affectionate lies and we will all promise to keep in touch, but deep down we all know that the lucky escapee has no intention of doing any such thing.

When someone leaves the department, jobs and relationships take time to bed back in - rather like logs settling in a fireplace after they've been stirred with a poker. Somewhere in the pile of vital but unrecognised jobs is the real story of how the exam process operates. Yes, I know the procedure is on the intranet - but we all know that the theory and practice are so wildly different that they share no genetic information whatsoever.

Important things will get forgotten - such as booking the quiet hotel room favoured by the external examiner, along with that special claret that did such excellent work on our behalf last year.

Exam season starts in a couple of weeks. The sweat-stained concrete edifice of the sports hall will once again resound to the sound of frantic scribbling as 200 keyboard junkies try to remember how to write. I don't suppose that a single one of them will spare a thought for the poor sap who will have to try to actually read the answers afterwards. I forget what the exam board ruling was last year about the candidates who answered entirely in txt, but it can only be worse this time.

This pile of essays isn't getting much smaller, and I've already had dark looks and stroppy e-mails from their (putative) authors about how much time I'm taking. They need them to revise from, apparently. Ha! They'd have been better off reading the primary texts in the first place, a technique that sadly seems to have faded from fashion.

But before I return to the task ahead, I salute my esteemed former associate and say thanks, it's been fun.

The Son

Exams. I've now seen so many that even without reading the questions I know what they're asking: "Explain fully, and using diagrams where appropriate, why you should get the job/life/career/future that you want" - a question that is damn hard to answer within the three-hour limit of the standard first-year exam. And one that is ever so slightly useless anyway, because the odds are that whatever I knew in the exam will vanish like the morning dew within a couple of weeks. And this is all the more pointless because if I had any ideas what I wanted to do with my life why would I be doing an arts degree?

So, with suitably lowered expectations, let's take a look at exams. So far, I'm doing pretty well: I've got a total of four exams this year. However, one thing I noticed during the last bout at the end of January is that practically everyone I knew in year two or higher was in the library until it closed, and there again at 10am. This does not bode well.

The reason I've had comparatively few exams of late is that I've been writing essays faster than a three-legged breakdancer doing the Time Warp.

I handed one in on Monday, I handed one in the Monday before that and, guess what, I've got another one due this Monday. And, while I suspect that nobody actually reads them, I do get grades for them, which presumably counts for something. Deciding whether you prefer essays or exams is like contemplating which eye you'd rather jam a welding torch into. Either way is going to be painful, will decide the course of your life and will severely limit your ability to go out for quite some time.

And finally, since the theme here is deciding my future, I am currently trying to inveigle my way back into halls for next year. Given that my beloved scholarship guarantees me a place, you'd think this would be easy.

Right. My one small insurance is that I can move back in with the family.

But, quite frankly, I need that like I need a dose of bird flu - or a welding torch in the eye.

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