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One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy

May 20, 2008

One of the most immediately apparent differences between high school and college is the relative dearth of graded work. In high school, most of my classes collected at least one assignment a week for a grade, which meant that if I really screwed the pooch on an assignment it would only put a slight dent in my overall average. College students should expect their workload to increase somewhat dramatically in volume, but most of the classes I've taken still adhere to the "midterm exam-essay-final exam" archetype. This format could be viewed as more or less stressful than the high school alternative: on the one hand, students in these sorts of courses are allowed more time to complete the reading and prepare for classes, rather than having to constantly divide their focus between consuming new material and retreading old coursework. On the other hand, a catastrophic misstep on one of your three graded assignments can make it awfully difficult to achieve a high grade in a class, and this latter point helps explain why final exams can be such a potent stressor in the lives of students.


I thought it would be instructive if I talked about a few of the exams that I had during my finals week. My workload was relatively light, and I've certainly had busier weeks during the regular semester, so it may be that a partial description of my exam week constitutes a disingenuous portrait of the typical final exam experience at Oberlin. Additionally, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that I am writing this from the safety and comfort of my home, having finished my exams six days ago; as such, my portrayal will likely be a bit rosier than it would have been on the last day of reading period.

1) Classes ended on Friday, May 9th, and academic exams began on the following Wednesday. My first, and most stressful, exam obligation was my "jury" on Monday (conveniently located right in the middle of our four-day reading period, ensuring that my anxiety precluded any work I'd hoped to get done that weekend). Juries, also known as "committees," are a music performance final exam. All Conservatory students must perform in front of their division faculty at the end of their freshman and sophomore years. Whereas most academic classes evaluate students based on their knowledge of the material, juries are meant to grade musicians on their progress: a talented student who never made any progress could be at risk of failing their jury, while a ham-fisted but well-intentioned jazz drummer who improved a great deal might manage to scrape by with a passing grade. The jazz exam requires all musicians to memorize a list of songs from the standard repertoire; faculty members call two or three tunes from the list at random. I've always been good at learning and remembering songs, but was concerned I would play poorly. And this worry had merit, as I did play poorly, but fortunately the faculty was more concerned with my knowing the music, and as such I managed to stave off total disaster.

2) My Music Theory II final was a take-home exam with a two-hour time limit. I am pretty good at music theory, and I admit that I only studied for about twenty minutes in advance of the exam. It was more or less what I expected, though the piece that was included for analysis (the Largo movement of Haydn's string quartet op. 74 no. 3, in case anyone has a score handy) was a challenge.

3) I am taking a politics seminar, "Studies in Electoral Politics," as part of the year-long Cole Scholars program. (The program places students in elections across the country; more on this in a later post.) Our final project, constituting 40% of the class grade, was an essay on the political campaign for which we will be working this summer. I'll be working for Tom Allen's US Senate campaign in my home state of Maine; he is a figure whom I respect and admire, and I've followed the race with some interest for a while. The essay was great fun to write, as the subject matter was considerably lighter than the usual politics essay, and during the course of my research I learned a number of interesting facts about Maine's voting history that I would not have otherwise discovered. It's difficult to approximate how much time I spent on this from start to finish; it was pretty thoroughly researched, but in a sense I've been "researching" since I began following Maine politics many years ago. I'd guess that, subtracting the time I spent procrastinating, I took around three hours to outline, five hours to write the essay spaced out over two sittings, and two hours editing and compiling my bibliography.

4) For my Jazz Music Theory II final, the class elected to substitute a composition project for an exam, which meant that there was one less subject for me to worry about during finals week. This is not uncommon; often professors will assign final papers or projects in lieu of a test, in hopes of freeing up students' (and professors') exam week.

I once heard Andrew W.K., the sort-of-serious-sort-of-a-joke hard rocker whom I respect despite the admonishment of my peers, joke about a system for weight gain where you trick your body into eating past full by alternating between sweet and savory foods. This seems analogous to finals week; we trick our minds into consuming information long after we've loosened the notches on our mental belt as far as they will go, and we do this by switching from subject to subject, from the sweet to the savory. Hours spent on political theory leave me feeling bloated, such that one more sentence penned by Edmund Burke might induce violent, uncontrollable vomiting; but to exchange my "Portable Edmund Burke" for "The Power of Black Music" by Samuel Floyd is to breathe (some) new life into my study session.

It's important to remember that exams are just one part of college life. You'll spend nearly forty hours attending a class each semester, only to have it culminate in a two-hour-long exam. And after that it's over, and you'll lean back in your chair and let your exam-instigated worries drift away forever, cast off into a nameless world where college students banish their extant tribulations after discovering that every anxiety has a terminus.

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