a big beautiful mess

Finals Madness!

On Thursday I conducted my first real actual Russian exam. I know, I know I said I did that a couple days ago, but that was actually just short little conversations. This was a proper exam. It took 6 freaking hours. Here’s how it went, and why I would never survive as a student in Russia.

The basic premise was this: Each student had a different literary text in English (about three pages), which she had to read and be ready to analyze. Of that text, she had to translate a short passage (about 140 words) into Russian. She also had a short article in Russian (on anything from the effectiveness of medicine to the decline of Russian culture), which she had to read and be prepared to summarize in English. And, she had to translate a short passage of that article into English. Each student ostensibly had an hour to prepare, which really meant as much time as she wanted, if she just said she wasn’t ready.

They came in threes, to space out when people would be ready to speak. As each cohort entered, they chose an exam ticket from the nine lying face-down on the front table, and were given the texts corresponding to the number on their ticket. They got a few sheets of scratch paper, the ubiquitous “dirty paper” that’s been printed on one side and is recycled for notes or for photocopying handouts. There wasn’t enough paper, and many of them ended up writing their translations between the lines of the forms on the used side of their scratch paper.

When the first students started to be ready to speak, they came up to the front of the room and sat before Elena and myself, and proceeded to present what they had prepared aloud, while the others continued to work in silence behind them. And this is really why I would never make it in a Russian university. I mean, obviously, they’re used to it, because they all did well (as usual!) and didn’t seem fazed at all by their peers talking while they worked.

Apart from that, though, I would be really intimidated by having to account for my work orally, with just a few minutes to defend all I’d learned all semester, really. Although, this format also allowed for Elena and me to ask questions, clarify, nudge them to the right answer we knew they knew, if they didn’t get it quite right the first time. That more organic kind of relationship to knowledge is something we miss out on in America, I think. We have much more room for ambiguity and inquiry in class, but once you turn in your multiple-choice test or your final essay, that’s it, no going back, no room for mistakes.

The final ingredient in this crazy dish of academic culture was that the room was huge and drafty and oh my gosh cold. If I had known I’d be there for six hours, I would have brought my scarf, but I’m not sure it would have helped. As it was, I was wearing a thermal undershirt and my heaviest sweater, and I still had purple fingernails by the end of it. Each of the students was there for only two or three hours, but it must have been hard to concentrate in such cold.

At the very end, the last girl to speak gave me a Christmas present before she left, an adorable little green plush dragon. I would say it warmed my heart, but it would be untrue to say that any part of me was warm by that point. In any case, it was very sweet :)


  1. Robin Robin
    16 January 2012    

    what’s the dragon’s name? inquiring minds want to know.

    • 16 January 2012    

      I hadn’t thought about it. Probably Vasya.

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