Anxiety

As a rule I don’t suffer much from test anxiety. Nor should I. During 14 years in school, 4 years in university the first time, and 20 years of an academic career I have been in all kinds of exams and exam-like situations. The final examinations for my master grade included three written exams in as many different subjects, four hours each, within nine days, then three more oral exams over a few weeks. My oral doctoral exam lasted an hour. Hell, I passed a Habilitationsverfahren, in my opinion easily the most scary kind of academic examination, with flying colours. I have given lectures before hundreds of people. I don’t get scared speaking in public. I have published 12 books and suffered through the reviews, domestic and foreign. The worst an exam can do to me is give me writer’s cramp (I started using a typewriter when I was 4 and have avoided writing by hand ever since). Or so I thought.

Yet something about this here setup gives me the creeps. It starts with all the exams for all the courses of an entire term being crammed into just a couple of weeks at term end (in fact, originally they had scheduled four out of five for the first week, including all the core subjects; thankfully later they moved Math to week two). What if you get sick just then? Not an unlikely scenario in late January, particularly with a hitherto mild winter just having turned nasty after New Year’s. And there is no alternative date; if you miss an exam, your next chance is next term’s finals. Which means you then have to do the exam you missed on top of those for next term’s courses, and try to remember things you learned from one year to half a year ago in addition to all the new stuff. Sounds like a vicious circle to me. And if you get really ill and miss all the exams in an entire week, there goes the term for you. A heavy price to pay for a cold. So from all I have heard, most people go and try even if any conscientious physician would order them to remain in bed. Naturally then the grades suffer.

Next, it looks like we won’t be given nearly enough time to work the assignments in anything like a relaxed, constructive state of mind. To the contrary, the setup seems designed in order to test, above all, our performance under severe time constraints, which comes down to our resilience to stress. I already talked about that with respect to Math. It doesn’t seem any different in Programming. We did a mock exam for programming theory with our professor before Christmas. It was not hard and I managed reasonable answers to most questions, but I was really pressed for time. Yesterday we did a mock practical programming exam in the tutorial class, and frankly, it was a disaster. After some preliminaries, we had about 25 minutes to complete a Node class for a tree data structure with seven (!) methods that all required both traversing the tree and passing functions as parameters, nothing of which any of us had ever done before, unless s/he had previous programming experience, and at least the last of which is somewhat tricky in Ruby. Even though it was only a mock exam, I experienced a flash of panic when I realized I had next to no idea how to do this, would have to read the documentation and do some serious trial and error to even find out how to pass a function through a tree, and  after that the remaining time would never suffice to complete all the assignments. My neighbour simply gave up. I had the tree traversal working with 10 minutes left, and got four of the seven functions to work, though none with any degree of elegance. Of the dozen or so other people in the room, one completed three and one half functions, a couple managed two, and the others one or none.

Afterwards the tutors said the tree exercise was the easier of the two assignments they had prepared and selected from, and that the professor had indicated to them he would do something similar in the actual exam. To be sure, it was an interesting assignment, but only given enough time. Four functions and an actual 45 minutes, and I wouldn’t have come out of the mock exam fearing, for the first time ever, that the practical programming exercise would not be the cakewalk I had foolishly imagined. To be sure, the mock exam had been designed by the tutors, not the professor. I gave him the test and told him of our difficulties, and he said that the assignments, though technically simple, were conceptually too complex for the first term, and the actual exam would not be quite as hard. There is hope.

At the core, however, my uneasiness is about the system itself. I find it illogical.

Let’s take programming. In the practical course, we have done six assignments over three months. Some of those were simple, such as implementing a few algorithms. But some were comparatively complex, at least potentially, that is when you wanted to do them well. In two cases, we did a GUI from scratch, once for Conway’s “Game of Life” and once for “Mastermind”. Quite a task for the first term, and using the somewhat obstinate and (for Ruby) poorly documented tool-kit Tk.  All that code was submitted to the professor by email and in most cases presented at length before the class. Now wouldn’t you think that all this work is a much better indication of our programming skills than the short alibi solutions to comparatively simple problems we can produce under time pressure in the exam? Mutatis mutandis the same goes for Math, where we submitted six lengthy homework assignments (anyway 6 seems the magic number here, not 42). We also participated in discussions in the courses, etc. Why not base the grade on all those contributions over the course of the semester, rather than the one-time snapshot of a single 90-minute exam, subject as it is to test anxiety, time pressure, form on the day, and the risk of sickness? I don’t get it. They could save us all the anxiety and get a much better picture of our real abilities.


Footnote

Now what is so scary about a German (Austrian, Swiss) Habilverfahren?

In other countries, after you get your PhD, you are a fully qualified member of the academic community. You can be appointed (assistant) professor. You never have to take an exam again in your life.

Not so here. You write a second book. Like the first, this is not so much a book in the sense that your audience is the general public, but another test of your mastering insane masses of literature and adhering to all the proper academic ritual (tons of footnotes, above all). Unlike the first time, however, this book is not reviewed by your supervisor, but by a committee of five professors or so who report to the faculty council, which is all the professors of all the departments in the humanities. In my case, these were 50 professors from 14 academic disciplines, ranging from psychology to philosophy.

When they consider your book a worthy (and usually weighty) contribution to the academic discourse, you go before the council to present a lecture, on a subject you have never worked on before, to prove your versatility. Then everybody gets to ask questions. Since in the vast majority your audience are from different disciplines, these questions will usually stretch your subject to insane lengths to somehow drag it into their realm of expertise, which means you may be asked to discuss the psychological repercussions of your linguistic subject, or the applicability of your historical research to the study of present-day Spanish literature. Good luck. In addition, please imagine the infighting going on in most faculties, within the departments and between them. They will shamelessly drag your presentation into it, slagging it–and you–just for the sake of your being their enemy’s student, or from a different department.

In the end, everybody gets to vote on the question of whether you are being considered worthy of joining their exalted ranks as a fully qualified colleague. The vote is secret, final, and there is no appeal. Everybody can vote their conscience, which means their whim, and since they can, they do. Some faculties randomly fail every third candidate or so just to show they can. I was lucky in that the faculty at my university doesn’t do that. They pass everyone, and in fact I hear in my case the vote was unanimous. But there is plenty of abuse elsewhere. Everybody knows that it’s not a test of the candidates’ abilities, but a ritual designed to keep fully accomplished academics, people who have successfully completed not just one, but two independent research projects since their graduation, in a state of anxious dependency, and thus readily compliant with the establishment’s expectations, until their mid-forties. It’s a shame, it’s a waste, and what’s the worst of it is that afterwards you still don’t get a job as a professor: you just qualify for it. In fact most people who pass this brutal exam don’t get a job. Instead they are entitled to teach at the university that passed them. And they are required to teach there, without pay mind you, lest they lose the qualification for eventually becoming a professor. Maybe.

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