Saturday, October 24, 2009

Viva voce: a 20 minute examination of an Oxford tradition

Oxford's examination system, like most aspects of the University, have a long history. This particular history is shaped by the viva voce (oral) examination, which I've been told used to be the main form of assessment. It still features quite prominently and the M.St. in the Study of Religion is no exception - all students have to be examined this way right at the end of the course and as with written papers the formal academic dress of subfusc is compulsory.

Perhaps more interestingly in terms of its ritual symbolism is the tradition of wearing carnations, which is actually optional. For a series of exams carnations are traditionally colour-coded and in gradation: for the first exam, it's white, for the last exam red, and for all others pink. Now for the moment let's assume an anthropological perspective: white often signifies purity and cleanliness - in this context the initiate (think tabula rasa) is like a newborn about to receive an impression as it undergoes a transition. In such a state the initiate is very open, exposed and often undergoing a process in a group where any distinguishing status they might have had before is removed - everyone is in the same boat. So it also conveys isolation and separateness from the rest of the world. Having undertaken the first exam, the transitioning is underway (towards a qualified status). One story goes that in days past the first carnation would then be dipped in red ink to become pink; subsequently it was further immersed and the colour deepened until red right through, symbolising the completion of the experience (and the taking of the final exam). Red is a symbol of life, vitality, coming to fruition.

What I've just written reflects the kind of approach that we studied in the M.St. and I'm sure that a great deal could be written in this vein - if you're keen, then you can explore the research of the likes of Victor Turner - see his chapter 'Betwixt and between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage' from The Forest of Symbols). My take is largely poetic license!

Anyway, all six of us from the M.St. course (Frances, Jeff, Tom, Tristan, Zahra and myself) duly turned up for the viva on Friday 2 October at Examination Schools and took our turns to field questions for just 20 minutes in front of a panel consisting of chair of examiners, a number of internal examiners, the external examiner and members of the examiners board. In our case, no fewer than six in all (so six examiners for six students!) These rooms are large and echoey and I could imagine familiar voices in animated discussion make the room reverberate! Perhaps that combative style of vigorous debate is the Oxford way, but I decided to take a softly softly approach.

One of the panel came to collect me and showed me to my chair, in front of a small desk bedecked with a bottle of water and glass. Before me were three clusters of desks and behind them the academics in their various gowns with the chair of the examiners directly opposite. If this formation is a centuries-old tradition then I can imagine in previous generations, when greater weight was placed on the viva, that sitting there might have felt like being marooned on a tiny island! I think that nowadays, at least for taught courses, a viva is usually an opportunity to improve one's grade, which removes a lot of pressure. I didn't feel nervous, perhaps because I've been doing regular meditation practice, and in fact the panellists created a generally supportive atmosphere. I've had a couple of other academic vivas and in comparison, this was probably the least intimidating of them.

However I really didn't know what my approach should have been and afterwards I couldn't tell how I fared! There's no guide to preparing for the vivas, just a few sentences that basically say that the questions are likely to concern the written papers and/or submissions (essays and dissertation), but the panel is at liberty to ask anything relating to the course. This might seem like they have carte blanche, but in practice the questions would be oriented, I expect, to drawing out more from the candidate that might have been communicated in the written work.

At least, that's how I might rationalise some of the questions that came my way, which were very general. One asked me something like: "What do you understand by mystical experience?" Now here is where I probably overdid the psychology as I knew my questioner's field was science and religion. So I immediately questioned the word "understand," which prompted a short response in which I was asked to "define 'mystical experience'" and I was subsequently asked to compare it with 'religious experience.' With St. Teresa of Avila in mind, the subject of one of my essays, I waffled on about depth [that was a suggestion given me], ineffability, problems of measurement (still thinking about the background of my questioner - but refrained from sharing thoughts from David Böhm's introduction to his Wholeness and the Implicate Order). Instead I threw in words like "numinous" and claiming people's differing horizons (earth, sky, outer space) making it difficult to compare etc. Towards the end I was asked for a definition of 'religion,' to which I claimed that no definition was adequate, citing one attributed to Durkheim "... beliefs and practices relating to sacred things", and indicating the limitation of 'things' when considering internal experience. I said it was better to look at characteristics and expressed appreciation for Ninian Smart's 7 Dimensions. When I offered to go through them, this particular thread was drawn immediately to a close!

Afterwards all the students gathered at Pizza Express and conversations ranged all over the place!


It may surprise people to know that when Oxford students were asked to express an opinion on whether the wearing of subfusc should remain compulsory, they voted 4 to 1 in favour of retaining it. (At the time I was working at OUCS and I set up the voting system (a simple indicative poll) in WebLearn at the request of OUSU. Perhaps subsequently having to wear it myself was the result of this karma. :-).


Irina said...

First of all, well done for finishing this Masters.
It is great that you took a pause from the daily routine and did something that is of great interest to you.

Then, just wanted to ask you if this type of examination is also at Maths undergraduate course or Masters?
I hope not....


Paul Trafford said...

Hello Irina,

Thanks very much.

For taught courses, regulations vary according to department and course, so I don't really know. My impression is that a viva voce is more common when a candidate's marks are borderline. Also, on a reassuring note, I was told that marks can only be moved up and this may be a principle applied generally. It's just one of the Oxford traditions that you get used to.

For Maths, you could start with the info for prospective students.

I'm sure applications from members of other EU countries are welcome... :-)