How do examiners mark exams?
I wouldn't want to claim that exams are as bad for the markers as they are for the sitters. But the Cambridge Tripos is still a big investment of time and hard work for the dons. It's not just that you have to read each paper carefully (and I have spent more or less the whole of the last week on this, more than 12 hours a day). You have also to decide what principle of marking to adopt.
Put simply, if you are dealing with standard "essay" papers, you can either go question by question (that is mark all the answers to question one, then all the answers to question two and so on) -- or you can go candidate by candidate (that is, mark all the answers from candidate a, then move on to candidate b and so on).
The advantage of the former is that you can compare the answers more directly and see more easily which candidates have got new or more interesting material.
About 20 years ago I was marking a set of ancient history scripts in which the first candidate I marked referred to an anecdote about the fruit trees of the Athenian fifth-century politician, Cimon. I was impressed. But when I discovered that at least 20 of the first 30 candidates had the same anecdote, I realised that it must have been banged on about in lectures.
The advantage of the candidate by candidate approach is that you can see the profile of an individual student's answer much more easily.
Over the years, I've developed a (time-consuming) compromise between the two. A rod for my own back, but fair to the students I think.
First of all I go through the papers, question by question. Then I go back to take a second look, candidate by candidate. I read each script quickly again, this time thinking of the overall performance of the individual student.
It is very time-consuming, but at least I can look the students in the eye. And that seems to me the basic principle of old-fashioned examining. There are all kinds of brutalities about it, but if you can face the candidate and feel OK about explaining why they got what they did -- that's good enough for me.
Anyway what was I marking this year? Technically I think I am not supposed to say. We are a communal BOARD of examiners and take communal responsibility. But it wouldn't take long to guess that I have been marking Ancient History in Part IB (taken by most of our students at the end of their second year) -- and indeed I have confessed so already.
These were the questions. two sections, three questions to be answered, one from each section. (I should say that these relate to the syllabus of "Paper 7" ... this wasn't just a random set of questions).
1. Was Demosthenes right to say that King Philip of Macedon was a threat to Greece?
2. "The individual was the only thing that mattered." Is this true of Greek politics and society in the fourth century BC?
3. Was the fourth-century Athenian Confederacy simply an imitation of the Athenian Empire in the fifth century?
4. Imagine you are a Roman senator in the reign of Hadrian. What would you see as the personal advantages and disadvantages of taking the governorship of the province of Asia?
5. "Greek culture was more or less unaffected by Roman rule in the East." Is this true?
6. How coercive was Roman rule in the Eastern provinces?
7. "Religion at Rome was, in essence, a branch of politics -- there was no such thing as private religious devotion as we know it." Argue against this proposition.
8. Why did some Rome emperors punish Christians?
9. "Goodness gracious me, I think I'm turning into a god" (Vespasian, on his death bed). Can you explain why Roman took the deification of their emperors seriously?
10. Is all history writing about the present as much as about the past? (Answer with reference to at least two Greek or Romam historians.)
11. "Exile makes good historians." Is this true of Greek historians? Why?
12. Do Cicero's letters help us to understand his "real" feelings and motivations?
13. "Inscribed documents are particularly valuable because, unlike literary texts, they are free from bias." Discuss.
14. "It is very rare that a individual inscription has made much of a difference to our understanding of any aspect of Greek or Roman history." Is this too gloomy as assessment of the value of epigraphy?
15. Can you ever reach a good understanding of an inscription without knowing its physical context and setting?
Remember this exam is sat not by finalists, but by students at the end of their second year of a Classics degree (or, for those without Latin or Greek A level, at the end of their third year).
What do you think?