March 8, 2013

Final assessment

Mamma mia! Exams at UChicago don’t have anything on the nervewracking Italian style of testing.

UChicago students declare with pride that our exam week is the worst possible. Everyone not at UChicago has it easier, right? Wrong.

UChicago does you the favor of testing you on specified material, scheduling exams at an appointed location and time, and often grading objectively, even with a curve to make sure not everyone fails.

Exams here at the University of Bologna are in fact a form of psychological warfare. Locations and times change unexpectedly, sometimes minutes before the exam begins. Depending on who administers the exam and how they are feeling that day, grading varies widely; there is no “standard” exam for everyone, and there are no rubrics. You have to nervously wait hours for your turn. And after all that, you have to have the nerve to sit face-to-face with your professor or some unknown assistant and calmly give exhaustive responses to their random questions, being careful to use the formal (third person) instead of the informal tu, which may offend them. By the way, professors can and do fail people—sometimes almost everyone fails. How well you’ve studied and what you know are only small fractions of the final outcome.

My first exam was right after Christmas vacation and more than two months after the class ended. I had read all of the books, taken notes, made study guides, reviewed, and rewrote my class notes. I even knew where my exam was, which was an accomplishment considering that all I knew two days beforehand was a phone number. I had my lucky socks on. I was feeling pretty good.

The exam room was about the size of a Cobb classroom, except there must have been about 100 people in it. I became rather intimately acquainted with my neighbors. As you can imagine, the room was noisy and stunk. Everyone watched as students took their exams—they heard the questions, gave running commentaries, watched their peers falter and fail or manage and pass.

And so the battle between my nerves and this environment began. I arrived at 8:45 a.m. but waited in that room, or out in the cold, until 2:30 p.m. to take my exam.

I tried studying, but couldn’t. I tried to remain calm, listen to my music, and pretend I was somewhere else, but I couldn’t. As the day wore on, my nerves wore thin, until I was just barely holding it together. I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read my notes. I couldn’t seem to speak or think anymore in Italian. I couldn’t remember any of the things I had been so sure of only a few hours earlier.

Given, my difficulties could also be due to the fact that the course lacked any unifying theme. Topics included the Sicilian Mafia, the Red Brigade, i partigiani, the world history of free masonry, child abandonment, incest, abortion, Judaism, Stalinism, Native Americans, the holocaust for gypsies, and other themes. Lots of information, few connections, all in Italian, and I was stuck in that room. As you can imagine, I was freaking out.

A girl who had just failed the exam for the fourth time sat down next to me. She was rocking back and forth, muttering to herself, staring at a notebook that looked like it belonged to a serial killer. She kept asking me for a cigarette.

And then it was my turn. I was lucky because I took the exam with the professor, instead of some assistant with a grudge against humanity. My professor tried to make it easy for me, but the questions were so vague that I had no idea how to answer. Let’s talk about Stalinism: Go! You’re supposed to start speaking right away, without a pause to organize your thoughts, and just keep going until someone tells you to stop.

During one question, he answered his cell phone. During another, he got up and left. I tried to stay calm and organize my thoughts—which at this point just amounted to sheer terror. I started to bite my lip, and bit it so hard that it visibly bled. So there I was, unable to think or speak Italian, face-to-face with a professor, trying to keep him from being repulsed by the blood dripping from my lip. I even forgot that other people were watching this horror unfold.

I knew the material; I am just not sure whether it came out comprehensibly. He was sympathetic and gave me an A–. I was lucky. Meanwhile, a friend took her exam with an assistant who asked her to list Jewish holidays, for a history exam. Dai! 

I will return to Chicago eternally grateful for American organization and professors trying to be fair and objective. We should be grateful for all the little things on our side—because it could be worse.

Noelle Turtur is a third-year in the College majoring in history.