Pink or purple?
Our undergraduates trooped back to college this weekend to be greeted by a big poster explaining how they could "find their seat". Not helpful advice from the housekeeping department. But timely information from the University examinations office to all those students who apparently don't know where their exams are held, and don't know where to sit even if they do.
Easter term in Cambridge is all about exams. Intellectual ambitions get traded in for an anxious diet of revision, morale boosting and what used (before it was banned) to be called "hand-holding". We give parties to take their young minds off it, supervisions to put them back on again. And more advice is asked for and given than even the biggest swot could take in.
In the old days we could escape a bit, by locking ourselves in our rooms and putting "OUT" on the door. But now e-mails get you any time of day or night - sillier as the term wears on. "Dear Professor Beard, Hope you don't mind me asking but is it OK to write in pink fibre tip, or would purple be better…?" as one of the "worried well" e-mailed me last year (Answer: Try black/What do you think?/No, I don't think you'll fail. . . ).
And when the day of reckoning arrives, we're all so keen for our charges to succeed that we turn ourselves into an unpaid taxi service. Any morning in the second half of May, you'll find the same touching scene repeated all over Cambridge: a tutor driving to the exam room at top speed, transporting some burly young lad with a handsome golden hello from McKinsey's already in the bag - all because his alarm clock didn't go off, or he was hung over, or he'd forgotten where his seat was. (In every other university in the country I should say - except probably Oxford - getting yourself to the paper on time is thought to be part of the test.)
So is it all worth it? Some of us, given half a chance, would simply scrap the lot. "Continuous assessment" would look more humane and it may well be fairer to women (who, across the board, don't do as well as men on the current system). And it certainly wouldn't take such a ridiculous amount of time and energy all round - which is in danger of seeming out of proportion when some 70% of these kids will now get a 2.1 in their final exams anyway.
For better or worse, grade inflation or superior student effort, gone are the days of the "gentleman's third"; thirds are now the human tragedies. And I've even heard it, half-seriously, suggested that we should just give them all a 2.1 as a matter of course, and that exams should only be for those who wanted to "bid for a first". That would certainly cut down the labour.
But I can't help thinking that there's life in the old system yet. For a start, no problem with plagiarism. Unlike with "assessed essays", done in their own time, you don't have to type every suspiciously clever phrase into Google to find out where it might have come from.
Anonymity too is a good protection all round. We don't actually know who wrote the scripts we are marking (and, as they now word-process all their term work, we don't even recognise their handwriting like we used to). While they don't have much clue who on our side is marking them - certainly not enough of a clue to be able to take the American option of sending their parents or lawyers into your office, or in the worst case appearing with a gun, to demand higher grades.
And having lived through GSCE and A level course work at home, I can't imagine I'm the only one to think that "continuous assessment" might be a lot more painful than this old-fashioned form of "sudden death". Just stress all the year round.
So here we go . . . only eight weeks and it's all over.