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

Thursday, 12 June 2014


Academic dress: your examiner might look like this...
Photo by Matthias Rosenkranz
This term, I’ve been invigilating Oxford History Finals for the first time. Invigilating isn’t perhaps the right word – the setting up, distribution of papers, handing out of booklets and general military-precision oversight is carried out by the Examination Schools staff. Academics attend in the role of ‘examiners’: if you sit on a Finals Exam Board for your subject, you have to don full academic dress and be present for the first half hour of an examination. Examiners stand at the front of the hall, and are there in order to answer any queries which might arise about the academic content of the papers. Half an hour in, they process out of the examination hall in semi-stately procession (clutching mortar boards, rucksacks, cycle helmets), and leave everyone else to it for another 2.5 hours.

I’ve found invigilating a deeply strange experience. This is in part because I haven’t witnessed a formal, large-scale University examination since I sat my own Finals, over 15 years ago. But it was also strange because the contrast between the Victorian world of the Exam Schools and the busy world outside seems to have become sharper; the dissonance has grown.

Oxford is famed for the formality of its exams. Students have to arrive in ‘sub fusc’ academic dress, or else they are ineligible to sit their papers. Tourists are keen to take photos of students in their gowns, black ribbons and carnations, or of examiners in their billowing red hoods. Exams here are highly ritualised, and perhaps fetishized. The papers the students sit are still a gold standard, in terms of academic rigour and challenge. The contents of the papers reflect the very latest trends in scholarship and research. Yet the external trappings of our exams culture are very obviously Victorian, and from another era: the vast 19C Examination Schools designed by Thomas Jackson (‘an exam palace’, as a Polish visitor once described it), the archaising dress, and 300 students sat writing by hand for 3 hours at a time. This scene feels rather weirder to me now than it did in the 1990s; in a world of digital, ubiquitous and increasingly socially penetrating technology, the frozen-in-time staging of Oxford exams risks looking anachronistic, and bizarre rather than quaintly traditional. I have a lot of affection for these Oxford traditions, but I do wonder if – when invigilating in, say, 2019 – I will, dressed in black gown and red hood, be surveying a room full of laptops, rather than pale students clutching fountain pens.