Housekeeping 2: 26-27 September

When Z and I buy house-related things we call it nesting and much of the 26th involved nesting. Boswells, a sort of catch-all department store, very much in the mold of the old Canadian Army and Navy store, is the go-to place for new students and they have decent stuff, not just cheap tat. For all that, it wasn’t as crowded as you would expect.

There was also the orientation for The Test at 4:00pm

Orientation for The Test is rather strange. It may seem like a conventional little talk from the Warden and two of the past Prize Fellows, but there is an odd and unfamiliar feeling in all of it. Certainly, there is novelty for me in the surroundings and genuine curiosity towards all the other hopefuls in attendance who exhibited a range of emotion from ill nerves, to studied boredom. I was a little surprised to see so many students who clearly knew each other from their undergraduate days. I was much more surprised to hear what Warden had to say.

I knew the basic parameters of the test, the vague requirements of the students, all the other imponderables and the logistics of election and appointment. That was all familiar from the website (although some students appear to have missed all of that, and I don’t know why). The shocking thing was that, unlike every other scholarship, bursary, award, or ordeal I have competed in or pursued, I heard the person in charge of granting that largesse actually thank us for being there and sitting the test. This was no mere platitude or courtesy, he (and the other two fellows who explained the process) expressed deep and sincere appreciation for our attendance.

This is shocking because it’s the last thing you ever hear from someone in that position. It was somewhat unsettling and considering the vague atmosphere of seething superiority drifting off the accumulated students, it felt really unnecessary. I don’t think these people need any more thanks for being smart, or for taking two days out of their week to write an exam, considering the relative scale of the prize.

It was, at that point, that I realized just how improbable it was that I was there in the first place. I also realized that very few, if any, of these other young people felt quite the same way I did and that made this all the more strange and unpredictable. The Warden was safe in generalizing the crowd as one that had only known academic success and that this particular competition was one of the very few that they would enter without any sure chance of winning. I have no idea what that must actually feel like or if it is even conceivable to someone grown accustomed to top grades and academic accolades. I have never expected to succeed in anything. Every test, every paper, every measurement of my progress has always balanced between success and abject failure. I am a horrible judge of my own abilities and only very recently have I felt some degree of confidence that I am not a complete screw-up.

Writing the test itself was reasonably pleasant, as pleasant as it can be to sit and crank out your best work on the fly at three hour blocks for two days. Now, my experience of this was fundamentally different than for others because of that little bit of hoop jumping a week ago. I got to sit at a computer in the bursar’s room (a white Dutch oven of a room with a fantastic view of a garden). I wrote my papers on a computer, saved them to a pen-drive, and printed off a hard copy at then end of each sitting. All the other students (and I do mean all of them, I was the only student who had concessions for a learning disability) sat either in the hall or the old library, elbow to elbow, in their suits and gowns, scribbling away with pens.

One nice thing about all of this is that while I still have no idea if my work met the standards of the short-list (that will come out before the 22nd) I do know just about how much I actually wrote. 12 hours of writing produced about 13,000 words spread amongst 12 essay answers. That’s 5,000 words short of my MSc thesis.

So what did I write? There are 4 ‘papers’ in the test, which is the English lingo for an individual exam unit. Each ‘paper’ consists of three un-linked essay answers to questions drawn from a list of about 40. Each day, students sit two papers, one in the speciality and one general category. There is no value in going into detail with the structure as it is explained elsewhere. I wrote tentatively on Tudor dynasty, medieval polity and Kingship, the effect of the military revolution on naval warfare, the value of creativity, the beauty of words, the death of the book, the occupy movement, vernacular literature in the 15th century and chivalry, the Church and violence. I know that what I wrote was representative of my work. I have no clue how well any of it will go over with the readers.

Straight probability is not on my side. There were 104 students registered for the exam. I don’t know how many of those actually sat it, and I don’t know how many dropped out during the test (it happens every year apparently). Throw in the suggestion by the Porter (someone who, I am very sure, knows exactly what he is talking about) that perhaps 1/4 of the students sitting the test are doing so under duress, because they were expected to sit the test, and have no interest in landing it at all. His estimate was that there was a 1 in 35 chance of getting to the short-list. While those numbers don’t quite work out (as Z has pointed out to me since this was posted) it’s better to think of the odds for making the short list. The short-list is usually 6 students and that gives those students a 1 in 3 chance of landing the prize. They may choose to elect only one fellow (happened in 2010 I think) or bend the rules and elect 3 (I don’t know when that last happened). Considering the shrinkage and the other variables, most students enjoy a slim chance (say 1 in 40?) of getting this prize.

I am chewing this over so much because it was actually a nice experience. I have never had this opportunity to actually show what I can do under the best circumstances and I really hope it was good enough. I don’t need this prize for the status or the bragging rights. I would like it for the financial security and there the possible sources of security are dwindling.

On the Friday evening, after the bulk of the tests are over (some Classics people still have a translation portion on the Saturday) all the students were invited to the Codrington Library for drinks and a mingle with the fellows. I will refrain from commentary on this but I will mention one small clutch of hopefuls that preceded me into the College, felt the need to deride, quite vocally, the condition of the lawn in the North Quadrangle. These were along the lines of ‘how much money does this College have if this is the condition of the lawn? Squack Squack Squack.’ I was gaining on them so I quipped ‘maybe the first task of the new Prize Fellow is to re-seed the lawn?’ which drew not one titter from the crowd, only a sour scowl from a student I have come to refer to as Squinty McShortpants. I chose not to follow up by suggesting that he step out onto the lawn where I could kick the sh*t out of him in aid of fertilizer. Really, some people just don’t know how good they have it and they really ought to be told as much.

3 thoughts on “Housekeeping 2: 26-27 September

  1. Surely there’s some time-encrusted ritual by which you can request the Rod of Appropriate Chastisement from the Under-Bledsoe charged with its keeping and deliver a prescribed number of whacks for the unbidden deriding of college grounds.

    Bravo on The Test. It certainly puts this NaNoWriMo nonsense to shame.

    • Well, you aren’t too far from the truth. College discipline is the province of Proctors and Pro-Proctors. One can be punished by the College with a ban, suspension, expulsion or ‘rustication’, which is one of the most severe punishments. The final and most permanent punishment is complete ejection from the University, called here and at Cambridge as being ‘sent down’ from the university, the reverse of ‘coming up’, all very reminiscent of the railway lingo where the ‘down’ and ‘up’ platforms are relative to the direction of London. Now, to get very historical, there are other means of discipline (or extra-judicial violence) but they are now (as then) rather frowned on. For that I recommend a quick read of C. I. Hammer, “Patterns of Homicide in a Medieval University Town: Fourteenth-Century Oxford” Past & Present 78 (1978), 3-23. Oxford managed to throw off the English homicide statistics all on its own thanks to a spectacular riot in the 14th century.

  2. Pingback: All Souls Prize Fellowship and the art of the short essay answer: | Pen, Book, Sword.

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