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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Postgraduate Diary: Revisiting Revision

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Although I did not have any last year, my girlfriend did, and so this is the first spring in a long time when the black stresses of revision have not buzzed either around our kitchen table or in my head, thick and horrible as the swarms of flies that emerge at this time of year. You would think, then, that sitting on the other side of the table in the exam hall as an invigilator would be a pleasant experience, a refreshing dose of shadenfreude. However, sitting exposed at the front, scanning the ranks of hunched heads before me, I think I experience something like a mild case of PTSD. As the spiel plays out of my own mouth - "read the rubric," "don't forget to fill in your exam code," "you have one hour remaining," "fifteen minutes remaining" - I step back momentarily to the other side and my heart races slightly, my palms sweat and, I swear, the skin on the fingers that pinch my pen starts to toughen to blisters.

In reality, though, I have nothing more stressful to do than to hand out spare paper, escort people to the toilet, catch up on my reading or, indeed, write this blog entry. I am also in the position of being able to reflect on the sheer waste of it all. Over the next three weeks, the stationery juggernaut rumbles through academia: mountains of paper are despatched to accumulate in (striking) lecturers' offices; gallons of ink are poured on blank pages; treasury tags, graph paper, forms, lists stand piled on the invigilators' desks; thousands of randomly generated exam codes are etched on minds for a few weeks, then wiped forever. Wasted above all seem the thousands of hours that between them these talented intellects, sportspeople, artists, fundraisers, hell raisers, have spent in the flickering flourescence of the library away from these activities, all for the sake of three hours crunched beneath a small desk, desperately writing the last, dying pages of their university careers on which the value of the whole of the previous three or four years rests.

In the day's of witch hunting there was a classic catch-22 test, brilliantly parodied in Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail). In it the accused witch was tossed into a pond with feet and hands bound. If the she floated, the judges believed God had rejected her, proving she was evil. If she sank, however, this showed God's acceptance of her; of course, this also often lead to drowning. This analogy captures what I believe to be the unfair judgements intrinsic to end-of-year exams. Those who have worked steadily and well throughout the year might underperform, whilst those who have not committed time and effort in their studies might spontaneously produce a brilliant script. The judgement of the exams might sink you no matter how good you are.

So why bother? Students hate them; examiners loathe marking them; the only person who benefits is me, getting paid for three hours of "staying vigilant." However, surely Spring would not feel the same without the ritual coming-around of exams. There is something about knowing that this rite of passage, with its standard rubrics and its protocals and its silences, is being undertaken in the same way in every lecture room in this university, in universities up and down the country, for thousands of students. Like England being knocked out of a major sporting event and the Summer hosepipe ban, this is one of our great British moments of the communal moan.

Nevertheless, having made that optimistic point, as I must stop writing now to give the fifteen minute warning, I glad to be watching rather than doing. The "post" that signifies where I am in my university career is a welcome reminder that these events are, for me, finished.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:25 am

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