Friday, 11 September 2009

Testing, two . . .

So, fifteen months or so later, I found myself in a room high above Tottenham Court Rd. I'd already taken exams at the end of the first year's study. I'd done well enough in that first set of exams. I had, though, been pretty stressed in the lead-up to them. Why? Because . . .

1. Since learning to touch-type some thirty years ago, I'd barely written more than a short note for someone else to read. My handwriting has always been terrible (worse, actually) and three decades of not writing for other people had done nothing to improve it.

2. I was quite out of practice at studying for exams. I had no real way of knowing what was expected. There were no sample answers to look at. I wondered if criteria had changed since I took my first degree. I did ask a tutor and was, again, told not to worry. But still . . .

3. I did want to do well. I didn't want to shine. Or rather, that would of course be nice but I wouldn't be downcast if I didn't manage it. Getting a really low mark, though, that would be humiliating.

4. There had only been one previous piece of submitted work for the course. Although I'd done well in that, it was far from being a general test of my understanding and knowledge.

5. Somehow, I'd managed to do more units in the first year than I intended. My idea was to do around two-thirds of the course in the first year. But units were moved around and I didn't adjust my schedule accordingly. So I ended up doing three-quarters of it. And so I could do nine out of the necessary twelve exam questions. Which I did. (Despite also facing a looming delivery deadline for my book, Filthy English, Portobello, October 2009.)

So, stressed, I revised. With no guidance, I developed my own strategy. I made a spreadsheet of previous years' questions and did a rough frequency count to predict what would come up in each unit. I wrote a list of concepts, with notes on each. I focused on a few potential questions and wrote draft answers in note form and introductory sections in full. I read and re-read them.

All of which worked, more or less. I reckon I only fell down badly on two papers. One was a new unit for which no one could have predicted the questions. I wrote some fractious rubbish.

The other unit I'm sure I screwed up was the French stuff: Lacan and Andre Green. Despite there only being one seminar on Green to seven or so on Lacan, the exam had always featured a question on each. Further, the Green one was always the same. It was about his big thing, the dead mother complex. (You were supposed to glide over the fact that this was something that was expressed in his own personal history. Mere gossip, in the words of psychoanalysts' favourite brittle, defensive put-down.)

I couldn't, though, bring myself to answer or even revise the Green question. An evening at a lecture by him at the Institute of Psychoanalysis exemplified for me everything I had always hated about the game. It was pompous, endless, petty and spiteful, self-congratulatory and expressed in a language which bore no relation to any I'd learned. It certainly wasn't in either English or French - or even the Cairene Arabic or Ladino of Green's childhood. As I wrote at the time, as evenings go, it was the longest month I've ever endured.

So: no Green. It had to be Lacan then. My calculations pointed to the Lacan question being about the French guru-analyst's deeply silly and wrong notion that the unconscious is structured like a language. I'd not been there for that lecture so I actually had to read some of his quite awful writing.

(That judgment of his prose is not opinion but fact. Even our Lacanian tutor - an amusing and engaging London-based French psychiatrist who dresses like a Balkan gangster - opened his seminars by pointing out what a terrible, terrible writer Lacan was.)

So I tried to read Lacan. And failed. I'd either get angry and argue with every word on the page or I'd drift into some kind of trance state. I'd like to liken it to analysts' aimed-for state of free-floating attention but I can't. Free-floating disattention, more like it. I'd look at a page for what felt like hours - useless hours, at that. Then I'd look at my watch. Hours really had passed. So I gave up on Lacan.

What then did I do when my predicted question came up in the exam? I blagged it, of course. Just as I'd always done in exams I hadn't revised for. I dragged in as much outside knowledge I had - from linguistics, in this case - and slapped it on to the page, filling out what little I knew. And I pointed out that thinking of the unconscious as structured like a language was silly, wrong and - biggest no-no in the psychoanalytic world - in direct contradiction of Freud's thoughts on it.
It's not really a surprise if I got a bad mark for that one, is it?

Next up The aftermath of last year's exams

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Testing, one . . .

Just over 35 years ago, I walked out of an exam room, having finished the final paper of my psychology degree finals. I’d been sitting exams once or twice a year since the age of nine or so. Twelve years: maybe twenty sets of exams. Mostly, I was good at them. But I’d had enough.

I walked into the bar, I announced that I would never take another exam. Then I got drunk.

I don’t know if I meant my decision to last a lifetime but I certainly stuck to it for long enough. Apart from taking my driving test (and maybe the odd personality test in a magazine), I sat no exams for 35 years. Nor did I miss them.

It’s not that I don’t think exams are a good thing — now and or back then. I think they’re a good way of assessing capability. They’re not perfect, of course, but they are a pretty good measure of knowledge, understanding and ability to work smart and fast in a stressful and unpredictable situation. All incredibly useful skills in life and work’s not uncommon tight spots.

Renouncing exams was a purely personal thing. Enough was, just, enough. I felt I’d had my lifetime’s fill of them.

So, when I decided I wanted to do a masters in psychoanalysis, I was put off by the fact that the UCL course had exams. It was clearly the best and toughest course — closest to my house, too. But exams . . . I really, really couldn’t be having with them.

I mentioned this to a university lecturer friend, Elizabeth. She was her usual direct self. ‘Don’t be so silly,’ she said. ‘You of all people shouldn’t worry. You’ve spent a lifetime writing to deadline under pressure. You’ll be fine.’

Next up So was I? Fine, that is.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

School’s out

It’s over. In the words of Alice Cooper (and the playground rhyme that inspired him), no more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks.

That’s it. It’s all over bar the mark. I’ve done the seminars, the essays, the exams, the dissertations. Somewhere down the line, I'll get the piece of paper to prove it.

Meantime . . . I took an extended summer break from this blog — even longer than I intended, frankly. I will now, though, be posting fairly regularly. In particular, I’ll be writing about the course and stuff I learned on it — about psychoanalysis, yes, but also about people (in which category, I include myself, at least some of the time).

So . . . forthcoming attractions include:

Dissertation writing — as viewed from a lifetime of writing

Exams — what’s a grown man sitting at a desk scribbling furiously with a pen

Drugs — should I have taken neuro-enhancers?

Chance encounters of a psychoanalytic kind — a barbecue of analysts (where? in north west London, of course)

Sunny Goodge Street — what I’ll miss about the course

Then and now — a (brief) return to south east London and finishing with academia for the second time

Typography — me and IKEA

Lacan and le con — what the French psychoanalyst kept in his cupboard

See you soon.