Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Exam Invigilation

Over the past couple of weeks, I've had a lot of time to think: 2-3 hours of silence a day, pacing around exam rooms and watching out for attempts to cheat (nobody even came close to cheating). As a student, I was always a bit in awe of the exam proctors (or as they're called here, invigilators). They seemed so authoritative and serious. As a proctor myself this time around, I tried to just smile and be a bit more casual & friendly--the students are under enough stress as it is!

Invigilators aren't allowed to talk, read, write, listen to music, eat, drink coffee, etc. How did I fill up those 2-3 hours of silence? 1) Daydreaming, which really got old fast, and 2) Analysing the demographics of the students. It was actually really interesting to see the numbers of boys/girls by subject. In Linguistics, for example, men made up only 18% of the class. In Engineering, women made up 20%. For as much as people go on about the dearth of women in engineering, mathematics and the natural sciences, people rarely criticise the absence of men in linguistics, foreign languages and literature. Is this because it is a non-vocational "soft" option? Or is it simply down to personal preference? I know in my own case, it was a matter of preference. I had the ability to do well in math & science classes (I loved and aced biology), but my interests were more geared towards history, literature, politics & foreign languages. Does this mean I "let down" the feminist cause? Not at all--to be truly 'feminist' and empowered is to choose what you want for yourself. So I don't think the gender gap between these linguistics and engineering students is cause for alarm...

The nationality/race gap in another area, however, was more troubling. I invigilated one exam where three separate exams were being held in the same venue: 2 engineering and one English literature. The literature students filled up most of the middle of the room, while the other 2 smaller groups were seated on either side. I hate to say this, and I feel somewhat ashamed for having noticed it, but it looked as though we'd segregated the room by race. Among the engineering sections, there was not a single white student. In the literature area, there was not a single non-white student. In terms of gender, the groups were fairly evenly mixed--both engineering sections had about an equal number of men and women, while the literature group was about a 60/40 split in favor of women. It's another case of the non-vocational versus vocational, I feel. Those from minority backgrounds, here and in the States, tend to pursue degrees in vocational fields. I spoke with a colleague who commented that "the white kids can study whatever they want, it doesn't matter--they'll still get a job at their parent's company." If not their parent's company/law firm, etc., then at least via other 'connections' that 'white kids' are assumed to have...

Another less obvious demographic was the 'jock' type, taking a sports med exam. Not a single student in the room was even slightly overweight. More than half of them were wearing some type of sports-related gear (sweatpants, hoodies, t-shirts with team logos, etc.). Hardly surprising, but interesting at any rate...

My colleagues and I are organising our department's 5th annual PhD conference. The theme is "Constructing and Deconstructing Identity: Challenges to Communicating Who We Are." My observations about demographics during the exam period have really made me think even more about identity. Why do we choose the courses we choose? It relates to my PhD research, as well--how is my experience as an American in England different from that of other students? Other visitors? What effect does my being a white, female, native English-speaker have on my experience as a foreign student? What advantages or disadvantages do I have?

On an identity-related note, I've just started reading Alford's "The Craft of Inquiry", on the research process & being a social scientist (the head of the dept recommended it, and he was right--it's really good!). One of his first steps in the process was asking why you want to do this project--what is it about your personal background, interests, identity, etc. that makes you want to research this particular topic? It's more complicated than it seems...The easy answer is that Phil Taylor's lectures inspired me to learn more about public diplomacy and student exchange. Before his class, I'd never realized that exchange programs like Fulbright were connected to the government (State Department) and foreign policy. That link between education and politics really caught my interest--even more so because it involved international relations, and I was already into that. That's where the more complex answer comes in--why did I find that lecture interesting? What is it about me and my personality that makes me do this PhD rather than, say, become an engineer? Really interesting stuff!

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