Week 5: Exams, Exhaustion & Ertegun House

Can  you tell I’m starting to regret choosing alliterative titles? If I carry on these blog posts after my exams finish, I think I’ll abandon that idea…

The days are starting to feel like a blur, as exam days often do. I didn’t sleep at all well the night before my German exam on Monday, which is unusual for me, as I never have problems sleeping. I didn’t do very much during the day: I listened to German radio and started a documentary on ZDF about consumerism and marketing – it was really interesting, actually, but I think it was British-made and so hearing the English under the German dubbing was quite distracting. It was so interesting, though, that I may try and find it in English to watch in my free time, as i’m really interested in how marketing and advertising work.

I made it to the Examination Schools in good time, and made my way to the waiting area for linguists outside Room 10, which was the preparation room. There wasn’t much to do there – a few people were quietly chatting in their respective languages – as all you did was wait to be taken into the preparation room. There, you were pointed to your desk with two sheets of paper: a blank sheet of brightly coloured paper for note-taking (yellow for German, green for Spanish, in case anyone was curious), and your question sheet, which had your name, the room you would be examined in, the exam instructions, and your three topics. Strangely, I just can’t remember all three topics for either of the exams – I think I was focused so much on my own preparation that my brain decided to discard the other questions… After fifteen minutes were up, unless you had extra time for any reason, you were shown to your examination room and went in to face your fate! There are usually two examiners, but sometimes there is an external examiner from another university too.

For German, I chose to talk about which piece of German music I’d take to a desert island – I think they were thinking of classical music when they wrote the question, but I talked about one of my favourite rock/pop albums instead! I was planning to do a little post about how I revise, since a bunch of you have asked for that, and will include it there. I think I may have been a little rambly, a little unstructured and a little too informal throughout my exam, but that was probably due to nerves and I’m sure they understood. I wasn’t expecting them to ask so many questions – I was quizzed on the relationship between music lyrics and poetry, the role of poetry slams, modern accessibility of music and the like. I got to talk about anti-formalism (the kind of free verse poems you see a lot on social media with no capital letters, no traditional form/structure, no rhyme), whether Instagram poetry is a good or a bad thing, and was able to throw in a few words like “Konsumwelt” and “Wegwirfgesellschaft” from the documentary, so it was pretty enjoyable. I suppose I’ve really enjoyed my time at Oxford because I get on well with tutorial-style teaching, where you are probed on your ideas and have to think on the spot, so it was unsurprising that I enjoyed this too. It was an interesting debate – the examiners were very much playing devil’s advocate, but you could see that they were properly thinking about the answers to their questions and evaluating your argument, rather than just firing out any old question.

All in all, I was fairly pleased with how it went, considering I hadn’t been able to revise for it – I’m sure if I had just German speaking exams, and no Spanish, then it would have been a lot better, but that doesn’t matter now. Being the first exam, it was bound to have been affected by nerves, and I don’t think stressing about it retrospectively will help in any way! I popped into college and picked up a cute good-luck card from my German tutor, then caught the next bus home to continue revision for Spanish the following day.

I was absolutely exhausted but still had a few topics I wanted to cover, including domestic violence and artificial intelligence. For the latter, I ended up reading a couple of really interesting articles on El País, including a pretty in-depth character portrait/interview with Nick Bostrom at the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford. My boyfriend and I are quite interested in AI and the FHI’s work, although he can probably understand it far more than I can, given his studies of things like logic and machine learning, so it was fun to read and learn the vocab for. At around twelve I decided to call it a day – with vocab and language work in general, there’s always more you can do, so it’s important to stop at a sensible time.

When Tuesday morning came around, despite this being an exam that I’d dreaded since October, I felt surprisingly calm – probably due to already knowing the set-up from the day before. I had a bit of breakfast and left, arriving at exactly 10am. I had a long wait before being called in, and kept my headphones on so I could read through my vocab without losing my focus. When I finally went in to see the exam sheet, I absolutely couldn’t believe what I was reading, and had to reread the question several times to check I wasn’t imagining things. The second question on the sheet was namely about universal lessons of Golden Age literature, which is, as you must know by now, only my favourite thing EVER, something I’ve been studying throughout my whole degree and the focus of my planned Masters next year. I was actually going to cry from sheer disbelief (I cry really easily okay) but reminded myself that now was not the time, and prepared a presentation about the Quixote. There were three people in my exam, and one of them was a new lecturer who specialises in Golden Age and is literally the friendliest, sweetest person ever, so it was incredibly comforting to have her there!

I’ve explained about the Spanish exam before: in pretty much every practice I’ve ever done, even the one I tried at home and one I attempted a few nights before the exam, I’ve had to stop in the middle due to a bit of a meltdown. I’ve awkwardly cried in my tutor’s room way too many times (he was incidentally examining me so I hope he’s pleased at the difference…) and genuinely started to shake at the mere thought of even doing a practice run at home. After calming my nerves by learning pages and pages and pages of vocab over the last week, I was finally able to go into the examination room and confidently give my preparation, as well as answer all the questions I was asked – and even enjoyed it! I have no idea whether my Spanish was actually any good, but I don’t care – two weeks ago, I wasn’t even sure I’d make it all the way through without having a meltdown, so just being able to speak was a huge achievement. I know people will say “See, you had nothing to worry about!” when I tell them how it went, but I really wouldn’t have been able to do it without putting in some serious hours and learning the vocab. And it came in useful – I was able to apply words I learnt about ethnic minorities, integration, racism and immigration to discussions both on marginalised figures in Golden Age Spain and on Spanish people living in Oxford, as well as attempting to explain my hopes for diversification of the curriculumn. Again, I have no idea what kind of mark I’ll get – I’m just so proud I managed to beat this challenge and do my best!

Processed with VSCO with a9 presetMy boyfriend met me in town – we first went to Paul for a restorative coffee (the chai latte I had was actually quite dire unfortunately), where we bumped into a friend who wittily related the tense atmosphere in her college and the expressions of abjection present on every finalist face. I’m always amused to hear such tales, being removed from it all as I am. Also highly amusing is the moment – a common occurence these days – when a fellow finalist enthuses about how exciting it’ll be to leave Oxford, how tired we all are, how much we can’t wait to finish our degree, move away and never look back, and then finds out that I’m very much planning to stay put! I take these moments in extremely good humour, as I completely anticipate the sinking feeling I’ll have if I (hopefully!) get the grades I need and, once again, have to fill my summer with a mammoth reading list instead of celebrating and preparing for an exciting new job… Of course, this doesn’t mean I’d rather be doing anything else – far from it – but I think a little grass-is-greener syndrome is completely normal in this kind of situation. Many recent graduates become nostalgic for their Oxford days a few months after leaving, and insist on coming back to visit in order to relieve a little of their student life, while I’m sure I’ll be green with envy at everyone with an actual salary in October!

For lunch we went to Jamie’s Italian, which was actually really disappointing considering the price! When we came home it was pretty hard to get myself back into gear, because I was so exhausted from all the exertion that I just wanted to sleep for the rest of the week! Sadly, I had two more exams so a week-long nap wasn’t an option. The listening exams over the next few days were a mixed lot: Spanish was very easy, almost worryingly so. We had a text about well-being, exercise and positive thinking, and the only word I really had to guess was “analgesic”, which luckily turned out to be a thing… German, however, was pretty difficult. In all fairness, it was the first time I’d actually sat a German listening paper, and the person reading was quite quiet, but I don’t think I did as well as I would have liked – the text was about war diaries and I had to guess a lot of what I wrote down, frequently writing answers that were just plain wrong. I had been quite stressed that morning and was absolutely exhausted afterwards, from both the week’s efforts and all the cumulative stress before and following the German exam. Luckily, these exams aren’t worth a huge amount in our degree, so kind of screwing up one exam isn’t the end of the world. In fact, it was nice to have a kind of warm-up before the scary written exams start in May, and work out what went well and what didn’t. For example, I had 7-7.5 hours sleep most days, and I realised that simply wasn’t enough, so when my written exams come around I’ll be getting at least 8 hours a night!

Processed with VSCO with q4 presetWe didn’t need to rack our brains to decide how to celebrate the end of oral exams, as I was lucky enough to have been invited to review the restaurant The Banana Tree on my blog. Since a detailed post is in the works, I won’t give away too much, but it was a wonderful evening and the perfect way to celebrate. I’m so excited to be working with Banana Tree, so do keep an eye out for the blog post, and let me know if you’ve tried any of their food!

The following day, however, after a brief meeting with my German tutor, it was back to the books, and specifically to Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice. It’s such an intense, rich work that I really wanted to spend a lot of time on it, and so read it twice before dedicating a few days to exploring the structural and Classical elements Mann includes. Processed with VSCO with a6 presetSome of this was done in a cafe called The Truck Store, an indomitably hipster jaunt on Oxford’s Cowley Road which sells both coffee and a wide variety of records. I was content, as I had both an excellent indie soundtrack in the background and my best friend there for company – we hadn’t seen each other much due to revision and exams, so went for a quick lunch afterwards and renewed our mutual excitement for upcoming summer plans.

My ever-wise, ever-calm DPhil friend and Zumba buddy paid a visit on Saturday, meaning my boyfriend and I had solid motivation to clean up the flat. My friend and I had already been for a bite to eat after Zumba on Wednesday, but it was nice to have a proper catch-up now that I was done with exam stress – she mainly busied herself with needlework while I analysed Death in Venice (my boyfriend was showing prospective Oxford applicants around Magdalen), which was lovely, until she realised that she had become so engrossed in her cross-stitch that she was an hour late to meet another friend! I hadn’t, until that point, been aware of the distracting and absorbing power of needlework, but this went some way to explaining how well it managed to entertain mainly housebound women over the last few centuries…

Processed with VSCO with p7 presetI really ought to have spent Sunday working, but I actually went to see inside Ertegun House for the first time. I had the pleasure of being shown around by a friend of mine and current scholar in history, and I was stunned. The house reminded me of a well-kept art gallery, with soft carpets, high ceilings, white door frames and motion-sensitive lights. I really do hope I manage to get the grades so I can join the ranks of those who work, read and learn within that beautiful building. Afterwards, I popped into college briefly to pick up some books from our newly-refurbished library and see my best friend, but before long it was time to return home and get ready for the start of a new term, with the sinking feeling I recognise from the end of summer holidays from school…

Apologies for the sheer length of this post – I definitely need to stop doing so much stuff during the week! I do think that, from next week, I will cut down the length of the posts, as time is getting really tight and I don’t have long left until my exams start. I decided to leave this one in all its verbose glory simply because I’d already started, but I’m going to have to be careful not to spend too long on the next few posts, or I’ll really fall behind with revision!

Thank you thank you thank you for all the lovely feedback you have given me, through Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and in person – it’s amazing to know you’re reading this and enjoying it! Have a lovely week, and see you next time!

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