Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Imperfect Answers

Over the past two weeks, I have spent a lot of time with pen in hand, marking the collections (i.e. mock exams) sat by first years and Finalists over the Royal Wedding weekend. This exercise brought home to me one of the glorious peculiarities of the Oxford humanities degree – you’re trained to think by writing weekly tutorial essays 3-5 typed A4 pages in length, but actually assessed on a rather a different genre, the 2-3 page handwritten (or scrawled) exam essay. Most students don’t get to see exam essays written by anyone other than themselves. Even though the Faculty produces careful explanations of the criteria for a First Class history exam answer, the majority of our students have never seen one – they are elusive and semi-mythical, unicorn-like.

Planning my exam answers...
So, perhaps unwisely, I've decided to have a go at writing a series of 5 sample exam answers myself, all in response to a single exam question on the European Reformation, and ranging in quality from low 2:2 to (I hope!) high first. The plan is to use these in our revision sessions with Somerville students, to show them (albeit in rather fictional form) the kind of material examiners are confronted with.

This rather tricky exercise (both technically & ethically) reminds me of Renaissance/humanist scholarly techniques. The great goal of the Renaissance, whether you were a writer, academic or artist, was to produce work which perfectly emulated the style of the ancient world. Schoolboys, for example, were taught to write letters in the ‘style’ of Cicero, or the elites of the Roman republic. There was a major debate, however, about whether one should slavishly copy, directly lift material from, or in some vaguer sense imbibe the spirit of ancient models. In a similar vein, I’m trying to write in the ‘style’ of an exam candidate producing low 2:1 or low First essays. I need to produce something authentic-sounding and accurate, which avoids becoming a pastiche or a patronising mimicry. The Somerville students can tell you well, or not, I passed this neo-humanist test.

1 comment:

  1. Hello there

    Did you ever carry out this proposal, and are the results online?

    Best Wishes