The End of the Line – for now

Today, I had the last exam of my law degree. I have finished my finals. I graduate in two and a half weeks. I’m almost a graduate. I can’t quite get my head around it.

I was the first person out of the exam hall, partly because of where I was seated and also because I didn’t take a bag, so didn’t have to go and collect it after we were released. I walked out of the doors of the faculty building and was confronted by a bank of people (at least twice as many as had sat the exam) waiting with bottles of champagne and sparkling wine to celebrate with their friends. We were the very last exam for Finalist law students, so most of the rest of the year were there.

No one for me, though. I slunk out of the door and slipped round the side to avoid any possible splashing with champagne – a rather wasteful and ridiculous tradition is to spray the examinees who have finished their last paper with wine as they exit, which creates quite a lot of mess. I’ve managed to avoid ever being soaked, partly by always being one of the first out and also by not having the sort of friends who meet me after an exam with a bottle of wine.

Or who meet me at all, actually. I hadn’t expected it to upset me as much as it did, but as l walked back towards college I found myself welling up. It wasn’t just that it was a total anti-climax, it was also the fact that after almost four years I have reached the end of my law degree. This place has been incredibly formative for me, and now I’m facing the very real and immediate prospect of leaving. No matter how excited I am about what the future holds, and I really am excited about it, leaving is scary. Change is scary.

I was just browsing through my blog posts from two years ago, just before and just after I returned from my year of illness, and two things struck me. The first was that I am so much healthier and more physically able to keep up with my life than I was back then. And the second is that I am no longer as thrilled and enthused by studying law. A couple of months ago a friend said something that struck a chord: at this point, we’re nearing the end of the marathon and all we can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other and hope we don’t fall over.

It’s been a long, hard slog, mostly uphill with the occasional brief but exciting downward freestyle. I’ve gone from being a nervous, arrogant, lazy teenager to (hopefully) a slightly more thoughtful, focused adult. I still make bad choices about how to use my time, I still leave piles of dirty dishes sitting around for weeks, I still discover something I didn’t even know I didn’t know every single day, but I’ve done a lot of growing up since I got here at age 18. And now, in just a few days, I’ll be leaving.

Today has been a weird day. Even if I hadn’t woken up in my new flat several hours’ journey away from here, I would have found it strange. I think in a way spending the morning travelling helped to lessen the oddness – instead of sitting at my desk for one last morning of cramming, I reviewed my flash cards on the train and gazed out of the window at the passing scenery. Once I had made it back to my college room I had only half an hour before I needed to be in the exam hall, so I gathered my stuff together and headed over early to collect my thoughts (plugging my ears so I couldn’t hear the other students having last-minute recap discussions of things I haven’t even heard of before – the only thing that causes me to feel panicked before an exam). The exam itself actually started out hilariously, thanks to a minor delay while we waited for some extra copies of the exam materials. The invigilator kept saying things that he didn’t realise were funny; in fact they might very well not have been, but we were all tantalisingly close to finishing and the mood was generally upbeat. When someone asked if it would be possible to move the clock from half way down the side wall, where most people couldn’t see it, the invigilator said he would make an additional time announcement to warn us that we were 45 minutes away from the end – they already always announce 30 and 5 minutes. Someone pointed out that a 40 minute warning would be more useful and we all laughed – in a two hour exam, with three questions to answer, 40 minutes is the golden standard – but he didn’t seem to understand. We eventually started four minutes late, and I gazed at the questions for several minutes before my brain finally engaged and I realised that I could answer them after all.

As I’ve said, once the exam was over it all felt a bit of a let-down. I came back to my room, gathered up my textbooks and returned them to the library. Our librarians are all lovely, and although my particular friend wasn’t there, the woman who took my books was sufficiently nice that I ended up crying all over again.

Fortunately the mood didn’t last long, and although I teared up a couple of times during Evensong (weirdly, when the sermon preacher mentioned the excellent poem Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart, as well as more predictable moments like when it was announced that there are only three more services left this year) I cheered up considerably thanks to the wonderful music we were singing. Only one girl still has exams – I thought I was the last to finish but she is carrying on til the bitter end on Thursday – and the atmosphere was almost party-like. Afterwards most of us went to formal hall together, which was fun if a little overwhelming in terms of noise. I was sitting right at the end of the choir’s section of the table, and I laughed until I cried at overhearing my neighbours’ conversation – they were attempting to teach a girl from Ireland how to pronounce her vowels “properly”, and it just seemed hilarious. They found my hilarity equally amusing, and I made some temporary friends.

Everyone decamped to the bar afterwards but Heidi and I decided to come home instead and spent an hour chatting over cups of tea and reading amusing blog posts and looking at pictures of cats (my favourite social activity). And now I am off to bed, because tomorrow morning Amelia arrives for a 24 hour visit! I’m so glad she’s coming, tomorrow would have felt very flat otherwise until the choir rehearsal in the evening. Thursday will be busy with my last ever singing lesson, babysitting, choir, and another formal meal. And Friday? On Friday I must start packing.

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One Step Closer to Decisions

Well, I got my exam timetable. I was waiting impatiently for it because I was optimistically hoping that my last exam would be before the start of my lease on the new flat, but… nope. Three in a row the last days of May, then one the following Wednesday, then a great big gap before the final exam on the following Tuesday. June 11th, what is this madness?! Anyway, it does actually mean that I can go up to the flat for a few days and revise there instead, which will be excellent in the extreme. I went into the kitchen to reheat some dinner this evening and three girls were sitting around playing “who has done the least revision?”, which is sort of like a boasting competition except in reverse and tinged with no small quantity of panic. And exams don’t even start for over a month. By mid-June the atmosphere will be so thick you can cut it with a ballpoint pen.

I also had a job interview for the summer job, and they seem to be considering me for the four-week post on a law-specific course. I think the interview went ok, although it’s impossible to tell with these things. I should know within two weeks, which coincidentally is how long it will be until I know about the midwifery course. Good job I have things to distract me for the next fortnight: a train crash of last-minute supervisions, my dissertation to edit, my friend’s dissertation to read through (in return for her doing the same for mine), three PhD chapters to proofread asap (I’ve warned her that “asap” is not all that s just at the moment) and hopefully somewhere in amongst that heap of reading a bit of revision… Roll on summer!

Exams have Finished!

The last one was this morning, and whilst it didn’t go as well as some of the others, it wasn’t a catastrophe. I’m glad to have finished, but not particularly elated or relieved. I’m also very glad not to have the type of friends who stand outside the exam hall waiting to spray the exiting candidates with sparkling wine.

I celebrated my freedom by coming home and having a nap. Well, I’ve got four months to do fun things!

Third Week of the Running Madness

I’ve hit week three of my running programme, which is apparently the week that most people quit due to boredom, injury or burnout. Although I did manage to injure my shoulder on Sunday (no idea how, it happened mid-run and was sufficiently bad that I spent evensong with my arm in a sling and the last two days taking Ibuprofen with breakfast, which is very rare for me), it is a lot better today and I decided it wouldn’t stop me from running. Apathy very nearly did – I reached the last possible point at which I could go out without ending up finishing my run after sunset and decided not to go. Then I looked at my diary which happened to be in front of me, and realised that if I didn’t I wouldn’t manage three runs this week. So I went and it was great!

Honestly, I don’t know what has happened to me. I was feeling a bit trepidatious about this week because it involves longer runs with fewer intervals of walking, but the time flew and my legs weren’t aching anything like as much as I expected. When the podcast ended I felt as though I must have somehow skipped ahead on the recording, because it didn’t feel like twenty minutes at all. The clock assures me it was, though. I’m raring to go on the rest of the week, and here’s to the next six weeks as well.

Today is a generally positive day because my exam this morning went excellently, possibly even better than last Tuesday’s. I’m hoping the next two (tomorrow and Thursday) will go as smoothly, and then the slight blip last Wednesday won’t be as much of a problem. I’ve also decided to treat myself to a day out on Friday, so I’m taking myself to a new cafe for breakfast after morning prayer, then going to a National Trust property for the day. Then I’ll head home and curl up with some popcorn to watch Potiche, my latest LoveFilm acquisition. It’ll be great. Saturday will be spent beginning my clearing out and packing mission (I’m starting early as I have serious doubts about whether all my stuff will fit into the 2m cubed storage unit I’ve rented, so I need time to find alternatives), and then on Sunday I’m going to some mystery village with the choir for the day. It wouldn’t be a mystery if I just googled the name of the place, but I rather like mysteries.

One Exam Down, Four to Go

Today was my first exam this term. It was also my first actual exam in two years (I’m not counting the January mocks, which were helpful as a test of our progress but had no bearing on our grades).

It went well! It was my contract law exam, which is the subject I struggled with most at the start of last year and the one I ended up feeling most confident about. Being supervised one to one with my director of studies was a huge help, because she could focus on what I was concerned about and also had the time to debate points and get me to really think about issues properly.

The exam paper was great, although not everyone in my year agreed – it didn’t follow the pattern of the last five years (because a different lecturer wrote it) and people who had tried to predict the questions fell down. It had one essay question which had me beaming; it was almost identical to a question I had set myself during revision, and I had a strong argument for it. Two further questions were complex and took a lot of planning but I was relieved to discover I could remember most of the important case names to back up my points. The final question, another essay, was not as successful – I couldn’t remember any relevant cases, so I decided to base my answer on careful logical reasoning and references to statute. It may turn out to have been way off base, which would bring my grade down, but I’m hoping it won’t. Overall a good feeling about this one.

My hands and arms ache, and my head is not keen on the idea of going straight into more work, but I have to because tomorrow morning is my next exam: land law. I’ve worked hard over the last few weeks to get myself on track with land, but I floundered so much during the year that for a lot of my “revision” I have actually been straight-up learning the material. Tonight’s challenge will be memorising the critical facts and cases and hoping they stay in my brain until 12pm tomorrow. Wish me luck!

Revising my Schedule

Alternative title: Revising: My Schedule.

This week marks the first week of proper exam preparation. Lectures have basically finished, other than two remaining recap lectures, and supervisions are finally over. The first exam is in under three weeks, and I have begun to tackle the issue strategically.

There is no way I can learn all the things. No one can ever learn all the things. In the past I might have attempted to do this, but I am older and wiser now. Instead I have printed out past papers and am working on a different subject each day, identifying the questions I could have a stab at answering and the ones I couldn’t even think where to begin. Yesterday and the day before, most of the questions fell into the former catergory. Today I came across at least three of the latter, just from one exam paper. Eek.

Every year at this time I realise that if I had worked more effectively during the year things would be easier now. I think I sometimes forget, however, that this form of learning only really works after the foundations have been laid. Had I been presented with an exam paper at the start of the year and told to find out what the answers were, I think I would have run away screaming. Now, even if I can’t think what on earth I would write, I can identify the topics and locate the information. That’s encouraging, at least.

Currently I’m enjoying my half-hour tea break, which actually is devoid of tea but did include a slice of fruit loaf. In a few minutes I’ll set to and do another two hours of work before my lunch hour. Two more hours after that and I’m likely to be losing interest and concentration. I’ve learnt to work with my own limitations and apparently I am not capable of concentrating on one thing for more than two hours (which bodes ill for the three-hour exams, but generally the fear sets in and time speeds up). After a substantial gap for choir and food, I’ll tackle a final two hours before collapsing into bed. So now you know why I’ve not posted much lately – there’s nothing to tell. Wish me luck!

The Problem with Exams

I realised today why I’m having so much trouble motivating myself to revise for these exams.

It isn’t that revision is boring, although it is.

It isn’t that I feel the exams are fairly irrelevant to what I want to achieve, although I do.

It isn’t that I know I’ll do tolerably well even without revising, although I think so.

It’s that I’m irritated by the whole premise of an exam. They don’t test how well you have understood the material, or your ability to think critically and analyse and make an argument. I have written some quite good essays this year which have demonstrated all of those things. But exams have an element that is missing from essays, and that is rote memorisation.

I’m finding it difficult to find another aspect of life where this sort of memorisation is required. When you fill out a tax form, you don’t have to remember exactly how much you earnt that year. You check the paperwork. If you want to research a place to go on holiday, you don’t have to scramble to recall school-day geography lessons, you just find some information about the places you’re considering. When you cook a meal, you are allowed to follow a recipe. The more often you do something, the less likely it is that you will need to depend on an external source of information, but you aren’t ever forbidden from checking it.

Qualified lawyers don’t make their cases based on what they can remember of something they read six months ago, and frankly if they did try that I expect they would be found professionally negligent. Surgeons don’t perform operations without reading the patient’s medical history.

I could go on but I expect you have understood my point by now. All exams are testing is our ability to cram the names and facts and dates into our brains. So when the results come out and the notices go up ranking us in class order for all to see, those rankings don’t actually reflect intelligence or understanding. Certainly there is an element of that, but the ability to remember specific wording and exact names plays a large part. As far as I can tell, the purpose of an exam is to test how good you are at passing exams, and that is seeming increasingly ridiculous to me. At least all the exams I have done up until I reached university did in some way have a purpose – albeit a daft one – because I was proving by achieving high grades that I could… achieve high grades, and then I used that to get to the next rung of the examination ladder.

Now I am stalling, waiting for an opportunity to drop back down the ladder to the start of another degree in which memorisation will be far less important than competence, and exams will be substantially replaced with practical assessments and project work. It just seems to make more sense somehow. What, really, are exams preparing us for? At the end of the day, if I get a 1st in these exams all it will prove is that I spent a lot of long, boring hours reading a list of case names over and over and over, trying to etch them into my memory alongside the relevant concepts. I’ve understood the concepts – just today a friend asked me about something which was relevant to an essay I wrote several weeks ago on international law. I remembered the gist of what I had read, and what I had thought about, but I couldn’t remember the name of the international treaty I was referencing, and I certainly couldn’t remember the specific article number. You know what? It didn’t matter. We didn’t need to know those, and if we had, I could have found the information in seconds.

I will revise for these exams, because I need to get a 2.1 in order to a) live up to my supervisors’ expectations, b) retain my self-respect having achieved high 2.1s all year, and c) stay in the choir. I will jump through the hoops because I signed up for this hoop-jumping over four years ago and I’m certainly not getting myself into £20,000 worth of debt just to throw it all up in a fit of pique over the whole system. But I am not getting het up about it and I’m not measuring my personal worth against my percentage score at the end of it all. Whether you believe in God or not, the fact is this: at the end of our lives, we die no matter how highly qualified. No one goes to heaven on exam results alone.