Cambridge exam terms: an ethnography*
*My understanding of what ethnographies actually involve is deeply shallow. I know that they are used in Social Anthropology. Please forgive any errors in the application of what is surely a rigorous and well-validated way of analysing human society.
[Opening sentence making it clear it’s a parodic ethnography thing.]
The Set-Up Paragraph – wherein the author asserts a number of vague and completely untestable premises about our social reality.
Cambridge is above all a highly selective academic meritocracy. The ‘meritocracy’ bit may be qualified by social inequality (insert own political view, perhaps with a little empirical evidence for roughage). Broadly, we know that students are admitted for their excellent school results from a self-selecting pool who already like books and/or high-paid jobs.
So we have a bunch of highly-strung neurotic perfectionists who link self-esteem to academic success – all of them used to being the smartest, hardest-working kid in the class. This is already an awesome combination, but in a further brilliant move, Cambridge tells them once a year to Hunger Games it out for a gold star.
In some subjects the gold stars are bell-curved; in the other subjects no one is totally 100% sure how this whole bell curve rigmarole works. Perhaps it is a piece of play equipment, like a slippery slide. Or a curve ball, shaped like a bell, which would be very un-aerodynamic, and thus extra challenging to metaphorically catch/swat.
The Linking Paragraph – wherein the effect of combining these premises is revealed!
After four years here, one can notice distinct patterns in the young animals’ behaviour during examination season. The spectrum of reactions runs from healthy to un-charmingly deranged; as A. E. Housman probably wrote, “Cambridge is an asylum in every sense of the word”. In particular, a few archetypes stand out.
The Listicle! Wherein author and reader breathe a sigh of relief at being excused from full sentence duty.
The Virility Reviser: The Virility Reviser will stay in libraries until pointless stupidly late hours, checking over their shoulder constantly to ensure that none of their competitors are beating them in the ‘my manliness is defined by my ability to resist sleep’ stakes. They will then boast about it afterwards, in a falsely rueful way that makes it seem as though simple accident compelled them to leave the Law Library at 4.00 am. No it didn’t. You loved it. You LOVED it. It made you feel like Elle Woods in the montage where she learns all of the laws in five minutes by studying on a treadmill. Study hours replace other metrics of human worth such as kindness, intelligence, sexual attractiveness, possession of what outsiders term a ‘life’ and World of Warcraft proficiency.
The Soviet Union (a subset of the Virility Reviser): A specific type who will vastly exaggerate their study hours in order to keep up in the arms race which is studying for a SINGLE THREE-HOUR EXAM. Based on trends of study inflation derived from two weeks’ worth of data, this person will soon be claiming they studied for 27 hours yesterday.
The Vanished: These poor souls are not seen all term. No one knows where they live. They do not seem to absorb sustenance, engage in social interaction or remain connected to the ‘real’ world of college. Who knows if they even breathe when we’re not watching?
The Bohemian: This person waltzes around college in a kaftan, handing out flowers and doughnuts, reminding everyone that there are children starving in Africa and our problems are really small potatoes. They seem very chilled out, but they are either secretly studying, in Mensa, or going to fail.
The Unexpected Exerciser: The gym becomes the only bright spot in a day which otherwise consists entirely of exploring the black hellish depths of their own ignorance. Exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy, and happy people just don’t kill their husbands.
The Fun Killer: The person who sits in the library glaring, glaring, glaring, then finally cracks and shouts “This is a library!” at freshmen’s harmless japery. Japery.
The True Believers: God, McDonald’s, Sainsbury’s cookies, Buddhism, obsessively following world news.
The Mutterer: These creatures migrate from their traditional habitats (bedrooms or department libraries) to the college library, in order to feel closer to their spiritual guides (the textbooks). In this environment, their previously innocuous habits – hissing at loud noises and muttering incomprehensibly to no one in particular about turnip production figures – move from charming/endearing to justification for homicide.
And all of you good people, of course. Congratulations on handling this process in a mature, thoughtful and rational manner, as incentivised by the university’s flexible and well-considered approach to assessment.
As repressive regimes throughout time and space tell us – if it’s centuries old, it must be a good idea.