The Easter (that is the 'summer') Term in Cambridge isn't much fun honestly. All the students think about is the upcoming exams. This means that you get pretty full houses to your lectures, but instead of engaging and arguing and answering back, they are hanging on your every word hoping to commit it to memory, to be regurgitated soon.
For me, this is a downer.. and it's especially a downer if you are examining a paper you are lecturing for. There is not much that is more intellectually humiliating than reading 75 scripts, where each candidate has fed you back a more or less well remembered version of a lecture you gave a month ago (to put it another way, it shows you how unclear your lectures must be).
As for supervisions (that's our small group teaching), they move from the argumentative and productive exchange of views of MIchaelmas and Lent, into something more like a counselling session. I can't count the times I have said this term... the key is to ANSWER THE QUESTION and to ARGUE (don't just 'write all you know about . . . "); if the question looks simple, it almost certainly isnt .. so think why not; go beyond the lectures and dont just regurgitate them; more marks are lost by being too tired or not answering the question or going to the wrong exam room than by ignorance....
So why do sudden death exams? Wouldn't some form of continuous assesment be fairer and better and more educationally productive?
I'm not sure. In our final year, we do have a dissertation option (10,000 essay on a subject of your choice, cashing in for one of four papers) which many of our students now do. It's good, but I'm not sure I want more of it. The advantage of a sudden death exam is that it is SUDDEN. And it frees up the other two terms for experiment and for risk taking and for not always worrying that everything you do will somehow "count" towards your final degree. The best bit of teaching is when kids chance their arm in writing an essay, and they would be much less likely to do that if the spectre of assessment was always hanging over their heads.
And anyway Cambridge students cant say that exams are inherently unfair to THEM... after all they had to be good at doing exams (as well as being smart in a myriad other ways), just to get here.
Meanwhile I am off to Warwick tomorrow to talk about the study of ancient inscriptions in the nineteenth century. And to celebrate the season I am going armed with some "Inscription" exams of the 1880s.
Now these are really weird. 15 questions on the paper, and it says 'You are advised not to attempt more than 7 questions". Now what exactly did that mean.. that you should do 7, that 6 done well was a better bet....? We shall puzzle it out tomorrow.
But presumably they all understood back then.
And presumably our own exam jargon is just as coded. In 100 years there will be people wondering what "Irrelevance will be penalised" meant plastered over the front of our exam papers.... or "candidates are advisd of the importance of writing legibly" (or whatever the slogan exactly is).