Sweating Through Their Degree

Last week, I wrote my final exam for English 445 – The Victorian Novel.  As an English Major, Creative Writing Minor, I have been spoiled rotten for six years and rarely have I had to write an exam of any kind, let alone a final.  Usually it’s a big research essay or a portfolio to hand in, no tests.

So how do you study for a final for English anyway?  I read the six novels, so I knew what happened in the stories, but based on the two quizzes and the midterm, this final exam was not going to include questions about the plot like, “What did Jane do once she found out Rochester was married?”

For lack of a better method, I decided I would make flash cards.  This was more of a formal lecture class, rather than a discussion seminar, so I had taken a large number of notes.  No matter what the format of the class, you can usually count on one thing.  If there is a test at the end, the professor is going to tell you things in class, and ask you about them on the test.  My note taking included lists of stuff like: five things about the ending of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, five genres of Picture of Dorian Gray, three Victorian attitudes towards children, etc.

I was still making flash cards from my class notes the day before the test, and then finally got down to trying to ‘memorize’ them as best I could.  Oops, there ended up being over a hundred of them, boy did I take a lot of notes.  Minutes before I lined up for the exam, I’m pacing outside the new Engineering building where the exam is to be held, scanning some of the cards I selected at the last minute, the ones I deemed (guessed, hoped) as most likely to be on the test.  All of a sudden I noticed similarities between my list of things about the ending of Silas Marner and ending of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  Sure enough, five out of the six things were identical.  And there were also duplicates in the list of things about the ending of the Picture of Dorian Gray.  I realized that I didn’t have to memorize each list separately, (as I had been struggling to do, and each list was in a different order so I hadn’t noticed the similarities before), I just had to commit to memory the five in common.  I did this quickly, took a deep breath, chucked the flash cards in the recycle bin, and went inside the building.  I queued up with my fellow 4th year students, some of whom would be lucky enough to be graduating this year when it was all over.

When I finally got to sit down and open the exam booklet, four out of the five questions were on flash cards I had managed to commit to memory, including an essay questions on, wait for it, common elements in Victorian endings!  I couldn’t believe my luck.

Unfortunately, I had a class mate that hadn’t been so lucky as to be studying the correct material moments before the start of the exam.  If I had noticed it as soon as we started the exam, I could have chalked it up to exam week leaving little time for personal hygiene.  But it wasn’t until about 30 minutes into the exam that I caught the first whiffs of the sharp, pungent odor of someone in nervous distress.  Myself, I was a cool, calm cookie, and even had time to make sure my hand writing was legible, rather than scrawling desperately with my antiquated pen, while missing the laptop that we are not allowed to bring to exams.

When I told my sister about poor person whose smell was telling the whole room that they hadn’t studied the correct flash cards before the exam, she said, “Sounds like they were sweating through their degree.”  And that says it all.  Exams are nerve wracking, even if you have managed to study the right things.  Someday I will wipe my brow, and declare I am finished my degree, and I just hope there aren’t too many more final exams from now until then.


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