Thinking about Exams

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Exams and I have a fair degree of history together. From that fateful first day in third year when I waited anxiously outside a gym hall to sit my Standard Grade English, to desperately scouring the labyrinth that is Glasgow Uni, trying to find my Honours English Literature exams, or waiting in the rain outside the OTC building, trying not to get run over by passing cars as rain splashed onto my notepad, exams and I have gone through hell and back together.

And they’re a funny thing, exams. Subject to much controversy too, especially in recent years with the dominance of technology over almost all other forms of learning and examination (who hands in a handwritten essay these days? is it even allowed?). Exams suddenly seem awfully old-fashioned. Individual (wobbly) desks, ink spilling everywhere, people writing with fury in an echoey hall. It seems a strange idea, to sit you in a room at the end of the year, thrust a piece of paper in front of you and force you to desperately pour out something resembling an essay in response to a set of unseen questions. I’ve thought about them long and hard over my time at school and college and uni, and come up with some pros and cons:

Pros: 

  • The fear forces you to study, to recap the information learned over your course.
  • The early stages of studying can be fun. You’re relearning and rereading, and in the process making interesting connections between texts, based on a more mature understanding of the course gained from reflection.
  • It can be an opportunity to shine, to show that you can come up with something original in a very short space of time.
  • You learn the value of concision.
  • If the questions are well-designed, the exam can be a true test of your analytical abilities and skill for quick-thinking – there are not many other times when you have the adrenaline necessary to formulate a coherent piece of writing in such a short period.
  • It’s nice to realise that you’ve learned chunks of poetry by heart. Even if they begin to slip away fairly quickly once you’ve left the exam…

Cons: 

  • Risk of being a memory test. While remembering and recalling information is important for lots of subjects from law to physics, English Lit and other humanities subjects is often about critical thinking skills rather than just remembering ‘data’ aka quotes. Lots of students memorise whole essays and go into the exam, then shoehorn and regurgitate what they’ve stored in their head. Sometimes this works, other times it ends badly. Either way, it isn’t testing much more than your ability to write fast and repeat.
  • Anxiety. This is a real problem for some people and can really hinder their performance in an exam, even if they’ve studied hard.
  • Breadth vs. depth. In an essay, with the advantage of time and access to material, it’s a lot easier to formulate a response which balances careful close reading and discussion of relevant secondary criticism and theory. In an exam, it’s too easy to fall back into the trap of plot summaries, even though you’re perfectly capable of analysis. Exams don’t always reflect your ability to synthesise material, or the extent of the research you’ve done.
  • Too much weighting. In my degree, exams are worth 50% of each course grade. There’s a lot of stake in those two hours, and if you have a brain freeze or something goes wrong, you can really drag down all that hard work you put in during the semester.

There are probably lots more, but here are the ones that immediately spring to mind. My solution would be not to scrap exams entirely, but to use them more effectively. Perhaps have mid-term close reading tests, which would examine your ability to respond ‘naturally’ to a text and your critical skills, rather than just your memory. Maybe also a 25% end of term exam, replacing the other 25% with another 3000 word essay. Maybe it will go that way in the future with credit standardisation; some universities don’t have exams for English Literature at all. The problem of course is that unlike subjects such as law and medicine and business, exam conditions are more unlikely to be part of any aspect of a future career sprung from a literary subject. While some jobs will require you to do set tests e.g. solving financial problems as part of the interview process, you are unlikely to encounter something like that in journalism, academia, publishing and so on. An essay with a deadline seems more akin to the work English Lit tends to lead to.

I can’t remember the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in an exam. There’s always that brief five minute panic when ‘your questions’ haven’t come up, and you have to radically rethink your answers and quickly choose a question; but usually in turns out in the end, and often the most spontaneous answers get the best mark. I guess one of the hardest exams I’ve ever done is Higher Music Listening. I mean, it shouldn’t be, but it just seems to be this horrible trail of riddles, where you have to discern different instruments out of tangles of sound in a very short space of time before the clip stops playing. Also, because you have to maintain concentration as a room of people listening to the same tape, your brain gets pretty muddled. And you can get distracted: I was so excited when the tape played The Strangler’s ‘Golden Brown’ that I made such a hasty decision about which rhythm change it contained that I put the wrong answer down. The coding sections of Higher Computing were also tricky, and writing four essays in an hour and a half for Higher Modern Studies is always the bane of your fifth year existence. Every student in Scotland who did languages will probably remember the terrifying voice that blasted the announcement about this being the STANDARD GRADE FRENCH LISTENING exam through the crackly stereo at the back of a gym hall, with all the aggression of someone holding you up in an armed robbery.

***

There was a golden moment towards the end of my last exam, when I realised there was less than ten minutes to go, and I was onto the conclusion, and soon that would be me – done forever. I definitely wouldn’t say that I’ll miss exams (hopefully, I’ll never have to do one again unless I decide to take up driving), but there’s something completely rewarding about the adrenaline rush and the nerves and the exhausting release afterwards that seems pretty unique. A bit like doing the Olympics, but for your brain (and your wrist). To anyone who still has exams to sit, good luck and remember it’s not the end of the world; and ultimately, they are always going to be a somewhat artificial test of your ability!

(Also, I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether exams are a good means of assessment or not for literature-based subjects).

Reading the Eighteenth-Century

My degree programme requires you to take at least one ‘pre-1800’ course – i.e., anything that’s not Victorian or Modern, anything that stretches back into the depths of distant history. For some people, the prospect of reading up on Shakespeare or Medieval literature is a dream, but I chose a course which was dated 1660-1785 – the most modern dates I could get my hands on. I was at first pretty worried about studying the eighteenth-century, possibly sharing Esther Greenwood’s view in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: ‘I hated the very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason’. When my copy of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela arrived, reading one paragraph of the heroine’s gushing account of her virtue left me exhausted. I looked at the fat Collected Works of Samuel Johnson and my heart sank. However, with some surprise, I soon found myself enjoying the books I was supposed to read. The truth is that the eighteenth-century has a lot more to offer than stuffy old men and their commitment to reason. Of course, it was the time of the Enlightenment, but it was also the time of radical social upheaval: of the expansion of empire, changing gender roles, political turbulence, religious opposition, the loosening of sexual mores and of course literary innovation. The renewed critical interest in eighteenth-century post-Reformation literature in recent decades has meant that the canon is no longer confined to Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson, as I feared it might be. I’ve had the chance to study more ‘obscure’ works by women novelists, parodies, life-writing, vicious epistles and pastoral poetry that does more than merely sentimentalise the countryside. ‘Tight little couplets’ neatly encapsulates the idea of formal restriction, but the eighteenth-century was actually a period of literary experimentation, facilitated by the shift from a system of patronage to individual publication, and the more general rise in literacy which meant there was a wider market for more writing. It produced the phenomenon of the ‘peasant poet’, as well as the likes of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an aristocrat and ‘woman of letters’; it saw the merchant Daniel Defoe becoming a successful novelist in his sixties after years of prolific journalism, and Jonathan Swift penning sharp satirical pamphlets that criticised government policy (suggesting that the problem of poverty in Ireland could be solved by fattening up the starving babies and feeding them to rich landowners…ah, never mind, just go read A Modest Proposal – but bear in mind the irony). So yeah, I’m going to give you a walking tour of what I’ve learned from studying literature in the eighteenth-century. It’s funny how much we already know about eighteenth-century literature, often without realising it. Reading Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, for example, I was struck by how many of Johnson’s aphoristic statements have been absorbed into our general consciousness, such as that hardened phrase of pessimism: ‘Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed’ or the wisdom of ‘do not suffer life to stagnate; it will grow muddy for want of motion’ (these terms acquired greater significance to me proportionate to the amount of time I was spending in the library, where life certainly grows muddy for want of motion). I was struck too by Alexander Pope, whose poetry is generally written in heroic couplets, which makes them snappy and easy to remember. So many couplets from An Essay on Criticism and An Essay on Man will strike most people as familiar:

‘Good-Nature and Good-Sense must ever join; | To err is human, to forgive, divine.’

‘True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, | As those move easiest who have learned to dance.’

‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast: | Man never is, but always to be blest.’

At first, Pope’s couplets do sound smug, especially in poems where he’s satirically tearing shreds from literary critics, other writers and the artifice of dress and manner which ‘ladies’ must shroud themselves with in ‘Epistle to a Lady’. But you start to get a feel for them, and the neat syntax and rhyme scheme quickly becomes pretty satisfying, especially in his Pastorals and Windsor Forest. Windsor Forest is an interesting poem because it’s a panegyric (a poem written to commemorate a public event) written to celebrate the Treaty of Utrecht (which was basically a deal allowing Britain freer access to the slave trade), but its attitude to slavery is ambivalent, and with his vivid images of animals being cruelly hunted, Pope via synecdoche (‘if small things we may with great compare’) invites us to compare the treatment of the pheasant to the foreign subject, the slave:

‘Short is his joy! he feels the fiery wound / Flutters in blood, and panting beats the ground’.

I’m quite happy I remember this quote from my exam. Anyway, it’s a fairly distressing image, with all the assonance of flutters and blood stirring up this sense of entrapment and terror, raising our sympathy for this humble piece of ‘game’. The poem is a good one to start with because you learn a lot about history from it, and the poetry itself is enjoyable to read. Pope definitely falls into pompous patriotism, especially towards the end, but because it’s framed through delicious images of silver and gold and rushing rivers, it’s hard to put the poem down purely because of it’s subject matter. And there’s always a sense of unease to Pope’s ideology, as it’s filtering through mythical allusions always adds an ambiguous, extra dimension to the meaning. This is the sort of thing you have to grapple with: not only ‘getting’ the mythical and historical references, but being able to trace their ambiguities through a poetic tradition you’re not quite familiar with.

Windsor Forest ('Wood-Cutting in Windsor Forest') 1834-5, exhibited 1835 John Linnell 1792-1882 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00438
Windsor Forest (‘Wood-Cutting in Windsor Forest’) 1834-5, exhibited 1835 John Linnell 1792-1882 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00438

Then there’s Pamela, Samuel Richardson’s novel about a young servant girl who falls prey to her master’s endless and increasingly insistent attempts to seduce her, becoming more violent every time. While she does not suffer the terrible rape that Clarissa endures in Richardson’s much longer novel, Clarissa, Pamela goes through a lot and chronicles every scrap of it in her letters home to her parents. Pamela can seem a slog, especially with all those self-justifying lines about how pure she still is and virtuous in spite of everything. It’s frustrating that she never seems to do anything but weep and write and swoon. Still, there are some funny moments, like when she tries to escape but mistakes two innocent wee cows for scary bulls, adding a dab of Freudian psychodrama to the otherwise relatively static action. I guess the main thing we can take from this novel is its intense focus on the individual (something that wasn’t really available before in fiction, because romances were interested in characters as archetypes – princess, villain, hero – rather than real people), and the process of introspection, the attention to everyday detail. The same goes for Robinson Crusoe: part of what’s seductive about Defoe’s novel is not just the adventure and pirates, but all those long passages about how he sets up his little domestic fortress on the island; how he learns to cure raisins, build boats, grow corn. He goes into so much detail you think you’ll go mad, but when you go back and read it, there’s a certain satisfaction to it. You can imagine yourself in his position – Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously claimed that Robinson Crusoe’s success was that he represented human nature in general – and the novel becomes a sort of survival guide to living on a lonesome tropical island.

Crusoe, Friday & some goats. Source: www.nvcreview.com
Crusoe, Friday & some animals. Source: http://www.nvcreview.com

Incidentally, Crusoe’s story was loosely based on that of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish man who ran away to sea to escape punishment for bad behaviour back home. When he got into an argument with the captain of his ship, he asked to leave and go ashore on one of the South Pacific islands they were close to. Selkirk thought some ship would come and find him soon enough, but instead he was stranded there for over four years. Crusoe, by contrast, is on his island for twenty eight years. Part of the wonder of the story is how sane he stays. Crusoe rediscovers religion and his spiritual devotion is essential to giving his life order and meaning on the island. It’s the little things that matter, that give him a sense of self: carving the days into a wooden cross, having dinner with his ‘family’ of animals and writing in his diary. The whole novel basically celebrates the power of human reason and endurance, as Crusoe notes that ‘by making the most rational judgments of things, every man may be in time master of every mechanic art’. I guess in this way it’s very typical of the Enlightenment attitude of the time, but there’s also a very strong capitalist motive for Crusoe’s actions and attitudes. As Ian Watt points out in The Rise of the Novel, many of Crusoe’s behaviours prefigure that of the canny venture capitalist: his restless travels for more trade, his saving of supplies and investing of crops, his careful planning of time and stock, and the mythological story of the individual’s capacity for survival. In fact, it could even be read as a kind of Puritan spiritual autobiography, because Crusoe has all his capital successes rewarded supposedly by ‘Providence’ as a blessing for his religious (re)awakening. It’s funny how a lot of eighteenth-century texts like Robinson Crusoe are perhaps best known for their adaptations into children’s literature (NOT as the rather awful film versions which insist on adding an irrelevant romance plot to everything). I suppose it’s because Defoe’s novel is also an adventure narrative, encountering pirates and ‘educating’ his ex-cannibal slave ‘Friday’ with Western values (another problematic but critically rich part of the story is Defoe’s relationship to ‘my man Friday’, which sheds light on the colonial context of the time). Another example of an eighteenth-century novel being famous as a children’s book is of course Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift. The irony here is that Swift wrote this tale about fantastic worlds with tiny people, floating islands, people who could extract sunlight from cucumbers, giants and talking horses (Houyhnhnms) to deliver a harsh satire on the politics and Enlightenment culture of the period. Unless you have a canny eye or an edition rich with footnotes, you might miss all these references, and so revel along in Gulliver’s story and thus fall prey to the kind of naivety Swift critiques in Gulliver himself. Indeed, because the book was so cleverly prefaced and presented as a true account of a man’s travels, many people thought that the events and the strange places described were all true. In addition to lashing the follies of man’s claim to reason and pursuit of enlightened knowledge, Swift was attacking travel writing itself, albeit with lesser gall. He parodies the supposed objectivity of travel writing, and its attention to seemingly inane details. He gives very precise numbers, showing the reader how he cleverly carves up the worlds he encounters, noting ‘three hundred tailors’, ‘six of his majesty’s greatest scholars’ and so on. He also feels the need for self-justification, as when he describes how his excrement has to be taken away by two wheelbarrows by the tiny Lilliputians:

I would not have dwelt so long upon a Circumstance, that perhaps at first sight may appear not very Momentous; if I had not thought it necessary to justify my Character in Point of Cleanliness to the World, which I am told, some of my Maligners have been pleased on this and other Occasions, to call in Question.

Swift’s writings had been previously critiqued for their lewdness, as in A Tale of a Tub and ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’, where the human body becomes a site of grotesque revelry and disgust. Swift, therefore, is here fashioning his own self-defence with thick layers of irony, inviting critics to judge him against his own self-protection, his free reign expression on matters abject and bodily. Travel writing was a big thing in the eighteenth-century, what with the growth of the British trade empire and the trend for the ‘Grand Tour’. While they didn’t have access to a railcard, undergraduate (men) would often take the Grand Tour of Europe, learning about refined French manners and Greek culture to more fully develop their education. This of course also involved a lot of drinking and probably visiting prostitutes, but then again, such matters were perhaps necessary to a gentleman’s education – he could ‘get it out of his system’ overseas and come back to Britain enlightened and satisfied and ready to be a ‘good’ citizen. Hm. One of my favourite pieces of travel writing is James Boswell and Samuel Johnson’s account of their journey to the Western isles of Scotland. Their approach was slightly different, as they each wrote separate accounts of the time. Boswell focused mainly on Johnson himself (as he tends to do in his writing!) whereas Johnson spent much time critiquing the dreariness of the scenery and observing the primitive lives of the locals with some disdain, though respect for their hospitality. You can read A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland for free online via Project Gutenberg, and I think it’s worth a gander, if only to take a brief lunch-break holiday into the wilds of eighteenth-century Scotland. There is also a rather humorous article in The Telegraph detailing the author’s attempts to retrace the steps of Boswell and Johnson’s tour, though I am somewhat uncomfortable with his complaints about encountering a range of ethnicities rather than ‘native’ Scots on his tour…can Scottishness not finally now be defined as authentic through multiculturalism, as everywhere else in Britain, or must it still be hailed as a land of blood and soil nostalgia, pale skin and tartan…? just a wee grumble! I have only skimmed over the stuff we covered in our course on the eighteenth-century. Other things worth reading are the hilarious parodies of Pamela, which cast severe doubt on the veracity of Pamela’s ‘virtue’ and burlesque Richardson’s prose style – some good ones include Eliza Haywood’s Anti-Pamela and Henry Fielding’s Shamela. Also, Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City is a marvellous book which looks at how the countryside was often falsely represented in various examples of pastoral and Georgic poetry through the ages as an idealised contrast to the corruptions of the city. Millenium Hall by Sarah Scott is a very intriguing epistolary novel which has been dubbed a ‘feminotopia’, an early representation of a utopian community run by women on a country estate. I suppose what really strikes you about this period is the sheer diversity of works, and the strong political ties most of the literature displays. It was a time of experimentation, but because the novel in particular was still a nascent form, it’s possible to perceive all the strange incoherences, the little faults and cracks which allow us to reflect on the form in general and its relationship to ideology. Edward Said, after all, has argued that the novel is by definition born out of colonialism: it is ‘fundamentally tied to bourgeois society […] it accompanies and indeed is a part of the conquest of Western society […] the novel, as a cultural artefact of bourgeois society, and imperialism are unthinkable without each other’. The novel’s representation of social authority in the hands of the British, its focus often on middle-class life and relentless individualism are all part of this bourgeois basis of the novel. Whether we agree entirely with Said’s statement, it’s a compelling argument that challenges us to rethink how we consider what is probably the most popular form (other than celebrity biography) in the contemporary literary market. And I guess that’s one of the thing’s I enjoyed most about this course: returning to origins, understanding how modern literature came into being out of the cultural circumstances and experimentations of the long eighteenth-century. It is rather ironic that while Samuel Johnson characterised the typical novel reader as ‘the young, the ignorant and the idle’, reading novels is now one of those activities that mark you out as ‘cultured’, ‘educated’, perhaps even ‘bourgeois’. Not only in its form, but also in its critical reception, the novel has come a long way. Some extra info: 

Pope's Grotto.  Source: popesgrotto.org.uk
Pope’s Grotto.
Source: popesgrotto.org.uk

Alexander Pope was a dissenting Catholic during the time of Protestant monarchy, which meant he was barred from participating in many societal institutions, like university. In 1719, he retreated to Twickenham in the rural outskirts of London, building himself a villa and a grassplot garden whose verdant beauty was to imitate the Arcadian landscapes of much of his poetry. Pope’s residence is notable and pretty cool because he constructed a tunnel under the road connecting his garden to his villa. It led to the basement of his villa in which he fashioned his own grotto. He wrote a rather beautiful description of his delight in a letter to Edward Blount:

When you shut the Doors of this Grotto, it becomes on the instant, from a luminous Room, a Camera Obscura, on the walls of which all the objects of the River, Hills, Woods, and Boats, are forming a moving Picture…And when you have a mind to light it up, it affords you a very different Scene: it is finished with Shells interspersed with Pieces of Looking-glass in angular Forms…at which when a Lamp…is hung in the Middle, a thousand pointed Rays glitter and are reflected over the place.

You can visit Pope’s grotto at certain times of the year, and that area in Twickenham has been named after Pope’s Grove. More info can be found here: http://www.twickenham-museum.org.uk/detail.asp?ContentID=21