Collections, what’s the point?

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Last year, during my much-awaited Christmas vac break, I saw a Facebook status which really hit home. A fellow fresher had posted, twinned with a “feeling frustrated” emoji, the following words- “I don’t quite understand what vacation stands for, in Oxford terms – it surely must stand for the action of vacating our rooms, rather than the ‘holiday’ synonym we think it carries”. A Twitter newsfeed littered with swearing at ‘my Michaelmas, non note-taking self’ and expressions of sourness and despair at the approaching term confirmed that this thinking was anything but confined to a singular individual – it was a shared pain, which lessened the excitement of coming back to seeing college friends and the prospect of another two months of ‘so bad it’s good’ clubbing. I can’t think of anything other than the awful start-of-term exams, collections, that loom ahead of us, term after term, that may have motivated such a bitter general consensus.

I’m halfway through my degree, and I still don’t understand exactly what collections are meant to help us in and what kind of aim they fulfil. I could, perhaps, begin to comprehend that they are a good way to assess continuously if you are a science student, who sadly has to cope with yearly exams. I can understand how they could help for specific preparation for those who are, instead, taking a specific paper in second year – psychology, for example, springs to mind. But even in these cases, I struggle to comprehend why we must march to dining halls, gown-clad, at the beginning of each term, to sit papers we’ve barely revised for, and panicked about for the entire six week break. Oxford takes great pleasure in pressurising us all to the extreme – I once had a friend comment that she thought the only reason it was so demanding was not so much the tutorial system, but rather the fact that the workload had been squeezed into an eight week term, rather than a ten or twelve week one, as they do at other universities. I dismissed it at the time, but now can’t help thinking there was underlying truth in her remark.

In a university experience where it becomes normal to have up to eight hours of lectures a day, run from college to department to lecture hall attempting to keep up with contact hours, and effectively decide to either give up one’s social life, sleep pattern or academic success, continuous sets of exams on a termly basis end up becoming accepted as ordinary. I am yet to hear of someone whose collections’ performance has effectively influenced their exam performance, challenging the idea they are meant to be ‘mock examinations’; I know of finalists who scored 25% in papers weeks before obtaining a First, and of others who didn’t turn in a collection paper at all, worried about it for weeks, and never even had their papers given back to them. A friend at another college told me that her course, sole German, allowed her to avoid collections completely – a decision made not by her tutor, but by a Dean from a college she was taught in, in an attempt to help her structure her own time better and plan for the term ahead. People don’t care about them (perhaps tutors less than anyone) – and if this is the case, I struggle to see exactly what motivation lies in having to revise for them. Why must we spend time on material dealt with in the past term instead of getting on with our reading lists and problem sheets? Had we but world enough and time, Oxford would probably not hesitate in setting end of term exams, either – but at least an end of term evaluation would make some sort of sense, acting as a general revision aid over the term’s work.

I continue to hope that vacation work could be the solution to collections – especially if you don’t have exams, the entire concept of mock assessments is somewhat redundant. My college doesn’t believe in making historians sit collections, but instead assigns them an extended essay over the vac. Isn’t this a rational solution- to have a piece of work to effectively read about and work on, in the knowledge it will be discussed upon our returns, and marked only after we have been time to work on it long enough for it to be a decent piece of work, rather than a rushed three hour paper, surrounded by the entire college body? It’s laughable to think that this kind of assessment is in any way going to help in academic development – which is precisely why collections are continuously dismissed with “they don’t count”. Intellectual stimulation and continuous assessment can go hand in hand, and vacation work could solve this.

But then again, as time goes by, I’m beginning to think that perhaps the concept of loosening the pressure on us as students is simply alien to the University as a whole.

CARTOON/ Harriet Bourhill