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

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Exams Past

They all wear a pink carnation...
Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography

            June means Finals season in Oxford, with the History finalists soon to sit the last of their exams. It’s an odd feeling as a tutor standing at your window, looking out over the quad, and seeing students all dressed up in black-and-white sub-fusc exam-uniform, complete with symbolic carnation, faces set in concentration, setting out to sit a Finals exam in a paper you taught them.

            When I arrived at Lincoln College as a Fresher in the 1990s, we had an initial meeting with the History tutors in the panelled Wesley room, where we sat literally at their feet on the carpet. We were told then, among other memorable things, that the horror of sitting Finals never quite leaves you. One of the tutors said cheerfully: ‘You’ll dream about it for the rest of your life.”

            Alumni I meet often assure me this is true, but I wonder if the post-finals condition is particularly bad among those who stay on at Oxford as tutors & Fellows, watching generations of students go through the same stimulating but slightly grim ritual every single summer. In fact, the Finals nightmares I have nowadays tend to involve my students’ performances rather than my own. I’ve had dreams where I was at a raucous dinner on High Table, and realised to my horror that as the dons sat, feasted, drank and caroused, the hall was full of students trying to sit a Finals paper. I’ve dreamt that I was invigilating as Somerville students sat the ‘Conquest and Colonisation of the Americas’ paper I teach, and leafing through the exam to see in shock that the questions were written not in English, but in the Amerindian languages of Nahuatl, Quechua and Mayan! So the responsibilities of teaching the Oxford degree weigh particularly heavily at the moment, and I too will be glad when it’s all over and the historians can put away their subfusc for another year, and I can stop dreaming about sitting at a tiny desk, with just a fountain pen, a paper booklet and a ticking clock.

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