Sunday, June 24, 2012

Examining these exams

Oh, Oxford exams. Ye of little educational content, much strategising and ridiculously amount of Traditions-with-a-capital-'T'. Some said Traditions are ridiculously antiquated and dysfunctional - seriously, why must we write these essays by hand? It only induces great bodily pain while diminishing the quality of our work. Others are slightly bothersome but generally harmless (see: sub fusc). And then there are those which I think are totally awesome.

Case in point? Trashings. No, not the "let's-get-trashed!!!" post-Exam drinking binges. (Though these also happen rather often as well). I'm referring to this great Tradition of waiting for your friends behind the Exam School, balloons and confetti in hand, so that you can throw everything at them when they emerge triumphant from having completed their last exam. No seriously, there's a barricade and screaming and everything involved.

The crowds gathered on Merton Street, waiting for their finisher friends.
(Yes, 'finisher' is totally a word here.)

Having been to a couple of Trashings (no, I have nothing else to do - what is this revising that you speak of?), I can say that it's a lovely and heart-warming thing to do. Finishing exams is a big deal, no matter your degree. For us taught-master students, it represents the culmination of a year of studies and, oh, only about 100% of our degree. But for undergrads though, and get this, last-year students write Final Honour School (FHS) exams which account for the entirety of their bachelor's degree! No really, they write something like 9 exams in 2 weeks, so understandably it is a BIG DEAL when they're done with their last one.

Trashings occupy a spectrum of, erm, messiness. Compare and contrast J's, on
 the left, v. A's, on the right. (Yes, they duct-taped him to a bench. Don't ask.)

But how does one know who is a finisher (or a finishing finalist for that matter), you ask? Why, never fear my friends, for Oxford has another Tradition for that exact purpose! Indeed, allow me to introduce you to the carnation system. Basically, exam-sitters pin a different-coloured carnation flower to the lapel of their sub fusc, depending on how which of their exams they're about to take. White for the first exam, red for the last one, and pink for all the ones in between. Oh, and apparently the Tradition dictates that you're not supposed to buy your carnations yourself, so there's a lot of meaningful glances and not-so-subtle suggestions taking place near florists all over Oxford in May and June.

Oh look, exam carnations held in an RBS cup with an
terribly appropriate tagline written on it. Ha bloody hah.

So what do I make of Oxford exams, so far? Well, for one the timetable is both a curse and a blessing. One of my coursemates had four exams in four days, which sounds and was predictably hellish. On the other hand, my own examination schedule is quite spread out, which does me quite some time to study in between. But it also means that I'm pretty much at the end of my rope right now. Two exams down, one more to go this coming Thursday - but I feel completely burned out and utterly unmotivated. This will be fun. Or not.

The face of exhaustion, as demonstrated by A & A & myself after our
first exam. (And yes, I am carrying my sub fusc gown here - what a rebel!)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Weathery heights

This is a post about the weather. Yes, the weather. Only the weather.

Become I moved to England, I never quite understood what people meant by "talking about the weather". Sure, it's a good neutral topic for small talk. But, c'mon, it's pretty boring, as far as conversation subjects go. And really, there is only so much one can say about the bloody weather.

Boy was I wrong.

They say that Brits love to talk about the weather. Having lived here for about 8 months now, I understand why. Hell, half the time all I talk about is the weather. More specifically, I constantly bemoan the lack of sunshine, repeatedly point out that it's still raining and act all surprised when it's actually nice. Even with my friends. You know, those brilliant, intelligent, funny people that I go to school with and could have a fascinating conversation about anything from politics to movies? Nope, we're discussing the weather. Complaining (the non-Brits/Irish). Or pointing out that it could be, gulp, even worse (the Brits and Irish).

Really, I'm always surprised to find myself having so much to say about the weather, of all things. It's either too cold, too overcast, too wet or too hot and humid. But most of the time, it's TOO MUCH OF THE SAME. Case in point: it's currently the 10th of June. Which, in the Northern hemisphere, puts us smack in the middle of summer. But if it is indeed summer (and my calendar confirms that I haven't gone crazy, thankyouverymuch), then why for the love of God did I just TURN ON MY HEATING AND DIG OUT MY WINTER COAT. The latter being the coat that I was wearing six months ago. In December.

...and in November. And January. February. March. April. (Not in May because the weather actually made sense.) And, oh yeah, JUNE.

There is perhaps some economic/sartorial benefit to extract from this situation, but the downside is that I. Am. Going. Crazy. Over the weather. The bloody, rainy, overcast, depressing English weather. These grey skies finally succeeded where 17 years of harsh Canadian winters failed, namely in driving me 'round the bend.

(Or possibly that's what upcoming Oxford examinations do to you.)

(In either case...bloody hell. I can't tell if I've gone native, or if this tirade is the product of me being, well, under the weather.)

So. How's the weather for you?

Friday, June 8, 2012

T is for Tutorials

The tutorial system at Oxford is a big selling point: arguably the best small-group teaching method, close interactions with your tutors and classmates, a 2-in-1 essay-writing and intimate discussion opportunity.

At the undergraduate level, from what I've gathered, teaching is dispensed mostly through lectures (the type that we're all familiar with) and tutorials. That is, students are given reading lists and then sent off to research and church out essay after essay. The tutor, which can be anyone from a faculty member to a graduate student (but usually someone within your college when you're an undergrad), will read the essay, give you constructive criticism and a mark of sorts. At the tutorial, you and fellow tutorial groupmates will either discuss your essays or some related topic. All of this, I understand, prepares you awfully well for the Oxford exams where you have to churn out 3 wonderful, original and well-argued essays in 3 hours. From memory. And handwritten. (And in sub fusc of course, this is Oxford we're talking about!)

The Examination Schools, where said exams usually happen. This is an
old picture from 1905 (source), but trust me, it still looks exactly the same. 

At the graduate levels, things are a bit different. For one, teaching is mostly done through lectures and seminars (but mostly the latter, as lectures are reserved for courses where they think you have vast amounts of new material to learn before being able to debate about underlying issues). Tutorials, therefore, serve the practice-writing-essays function, as well as a hey-remember-this-material? review one. This would explain why most of my tutorials have been at the end of a semester, or at the end of the academic year altogether. Of course, as they are in small groups (usually no more than 4 students and 1 tutor), they do also foster dialogue and academic friendship (academship?). And I must admit, I get a kick out of seeing my different tutor's offices, which are usually located within the college to which they are attached. (Ah, the college system. That'll be for a different post, I reckon. 'C is for Colleges', upcoming.)

...or sometimes, they're n the Law Building. A.k.a. St-Cross Building,
possibly the ugliest building in the world

In total, I've had about a dozen tutorials this year. For me, the most striking ones were the Jurisprudence tuts, where I finally gained some understanding of the material and relished the discussions my discussion group (myself, a fellow Canuck and an Aussie) had in, and out, of our tutor's office. And the essay-writing does make a huge difference, as can be expected. Unfortunately, not all tutorials have mandatory accompanying essays. (The rationale is that we're mature graduate students who will get out what they want from this degree. Oh dear.) And, even more importantly, not all tutors give out actual marks. Now, while it's true that every tutor is different, I think that, as we have no evaluation whatsoever throughout the entire year, a bit of feedback and a number scribbled in the corner would be beneficial to all. Finally, if I had one last complaint to make, it would be the scheduling of tutorials: I myself had the great number of them all squeezed into the middle weeks of Trinity Term. I appreciate the revision opportunity that such tutorials afford, but if they're too many of them too close by, then I really can't adequately prepare for them and thus kind of defeat their entire purpose. (Arguably, you could say that this was simply a sign for me to study more assiduously and continuously throughout the year. La la la, I can't hear you.)

Well now, this was a rather longer post than I had anticipated. Hm. Can you tell that I'm preparing for my upcoming churn-out-3-essays-in-3-hours exams? Jolly good, I shall now go prepare more flashcards and practice my speed-handwriting.

(P.S. By the by, if the non-orderliness of my abecedary of Oxonian odds and bobs confuse you, you can see all of them - though still not quite in alphabetical order - by clicking on the 'odds and bobs' label below.)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

P is for Punting

Remember that lovely, sunny weather that we've been having for the last week? Well, it lasted just that. A week. We're already back to overcast skies, sub-15C temperatures and humidity galore. In other words, welcome to England!

But while it was still nice out, tourists and Oxonians alike took to the punting in the river like, say, fish to water. (Or finalists to libraries, to draw from daily experience.) So what is punting, you ask? Well, from my limited technical knowledge, it consists of pushing a wide, flat-bottomed boat along shallow rivers using a long metal pole. In my head though, I equate it with leisurely sunny afternoons, quaint English countrysides and Pimm's. Not warped at all, nope.

Punts passing by our college grounds. 

 And under Magdalen Bridge, too.

2pm on a warm Sunday = rush hour on the Cherwell.

As for me, I have not yet had the pleasure of punting first-hand. I had every intention of doing so last weekend (and indeed I practically had one foot in the boat), but sadly a friend of mine got hit on the head with the punting pole and we ended up spending the evening at the A&E waiting room. (She's fine now, but did suffer a mild concussion.) I also know of someone who fell while punting on the same day and cut his foot badly enough to require stitches. And a tetanus shot. 

So let this be a cautionary tale about idyllic and leisurely appearances: please remember that punting remains a physical activity, one which involves a heavy metal pole and traveling over dirty, rocky waters which contains God-knows-what-has-been-languishing-there-for-the-last-800-years.