You can get 550 points in your leaving cert if you’re a dumbass. I’d know. I did it, and I still got lost trying to leave the Neptune Stadium three consecutive times. My boyfriend walked me there, and back, to ensure I wouldn’t. Twice. I still don’t know whether or not it’s Blackpool or Blackrock that I accidentally walked into and I’ve lived in Cork most of my life, so there you go.
That shouldn’t doom me to wearing a dunce’s hat for the rest of my life however. My poor sense of direction is no reliable reflection of my intellectual merit. Neither is my leaving cert and neither are my grades so far.
I started sitting in on a friend’s lectures this year; a third-year arts module. The differences in lecturing style are pretty interesting, if you’ve never had the overlap. Arts lecturers don’t put most of their content in the powerpoints; in the sciences, it’s considered poor form not to put the exam content where the students can access it. Arts have a lot more reading. That’s how essays work, of course; you get a list of books and authors, research the essay title, and come up with a well-informed answer to what’s being asked that’s however-many-words long. Or something like that. Look, don’t ask me, I just sit there; I draw pictures in my notebook so I look like I’m taking notes and leave the work to the experts, and idly take down the titles of books on the reading list that sound interesting. (I never did read Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness.)
It strikes me that there’s no easy way around it. You can’t bluff 3000 words on a topic you don’t understand. You can’t write a good essay about an awful, stupid take on the subject. I could intensely learn every fact about an arts subject and still, without the critical thinking skills, absolutely flounder. It’s a striking difference.
Some of my lectures do have recommended reading; attached articles, names of textbooks, papers. I do the recommended reading. Actually, I do the recommended reading when I’m procrastinating on studying, because I study by memorising the powerpoints. I transcribe the entire thing by hand (plus notes of related things the lecturer said but didn’t write down, which usually make up about 2% of it). I make it into little lists and use different coloured pens to make it easier to look at. And I memorise the whole thing. Bullet point by the bullet point, flashcards, mind maps, the whole shebang. I’m extremely good at it. That’s how I got 550 points; I can still tell you 30 Significant Relevant Points about plate tectonics and I did my leaving cert three years ago.
The reading’s are much more fun. It never appears on the exam; I had one module last year that wasn’t an MCQ for 100% of the grade, where I had the chance to mention it. I don’t think I did. I got a first. Maybe that one is my fault. I’m coming to realise now that it was kind of a waste of time. I felt much the same way about the leaving cert when I was doing it, actually. It was kind of a grim necessity in order to get to college. The memorisation aspect of the leaving cert hasn’t been lost on my lecturers, who have a lot of hand-holding to do for clueless first years, and have been frustratedly urging us to start thinking for ourselves for the course so far. Easy to see how the first-years got that way, though; it’s incredibly easy to excel in the Leaving Cert without a scrap of intellect. It takes enough willpower to force yourself to do boring, repetitive work over a long period of time. An important skill, yes, but important enough to determine your worth to a potential university?
So far most of my assessment has been exam-based. I don’t discount the importance of knowing the facts. Still, it strikes me how easy it would be to bluff your way this far. A friend of mine, who studies Fine Art, once lamented the low number of exams in his course to me. “I wish I had more. You don’t have to be smart to do well in exams,” he said, “You just have to be good at exams.”
I’ve tried to start reading papers, studying the reading, looking at the textbooks. I’ve eventually come to realise that I should probably have spent all the time I spent memorising on actually reading; that memorising gets me the grades, yet the reading gets me an understanding of the scientific world, the current research going on, what lies ahead for me as a scientist, as a student.
I’m acutely aware I could have gotten this far just staying at home, reading the powerpoints and making those little spider diagrams. (Probably would’ve done better in the exams; it would’ve saved me the commute time and money, too.) Memorisation takes a lot of labour, maybe, and a bit of discipline but not much else. It doesn’t take understanding, it doesn’t even really take being interested.
It would get me the grades, though. The grades prove very little about me, except that I’m either hardworking or lucky enough to be good at remembering things when they’re written down on paper. This isn’t the fault of the lecturers, let’s be clear. It’s not the department’s fault, either. You could argue that it’s partially mine. There are many, many complexities– bureaucracy, expectation, pressure, funding, time– that control this curriculum, and unravelling them to change it would take a hell of a lot. People, including students, are demanding results that make sense; we view science as a subject without nuance until the postgraduate level. The school system has a lot to juggle- a demand for results, the question of objectivity and fairness, the value of certain types of intelligence. I won’t pretend I know whether it the system should be reformed, or how, if it should.
But I know I was trained, from quite a young age, to be good at memorisation. And I know I’m still being rewarded for it, at the age of twenty, in the second year of my university degree. I know I learned everything I know about writing, research, and critical thinking from outside the education system so far. I know I could’ve gotten this far without knowing a scrap about it. How much further am I going to go before someone asks, “But do you understand? What do you think?” and what am I going to say? I don’t know, nobody’s asked me yet.