The Examination Trial 

As my first academic year in Cambridge ends, I can finally look at the exam term in a calm and detached manner. When it comes to such performances, I have pretty high expectations. Working at my best is hugely satisfying, and visible results push me toward more ambitious achievements. This was my attitude since high school, but moving from the suburbs of Milan to one of the UK top-institutions meant a total change of my parameters. As far as I have seen, it is not possible to define a typical Oxbridge students. There is a great variety in terms of nationality, education, social background. On the other hand, most of my peers proved to be keen on hard work, and willing to improve. Competition, often in the best sense of the word, is a natural product of the college environment. I found myself part of this imitative circle, taking part in socieities and trying to have a deeper grasp of my subject. In its own way, even the stressful trial of exams proved to be an enriching experience.

View from Magdalene Bridge after St John’s May Ball

Cambridge follows the Tripos system. Courses are divided in parts, and students sit exams at the end of the academic year. Not all the tests count toward the final mark. For instance, history of art’s first year (Part I) does not influence the result of your degree. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to face the examination with great care. In fact, the results would have been a way to assess my current skills, and determine how to improve them. HoA Part I is a general survey of the subject, in order to create an even ground between those who already studied it and those who didn’t. The program is quite broad, and achieving high scores is difficult. Students are required to learn a wide bibliography, and move flexibly between different periods, locations, and art forms. Also, the course includes an architecture module, with its own technical vocabulary. Revision must be organised selectively, as it is not possible to gather comprehensive knowledge of all the taught topics, and one has to search through an incredibly rich reading list to thing suitable readings. The aim is gaining specialistic understanding of useful examples and case studies, while acquiring more general notions on certain art phenomena in order to apply them broadly to whatever question one might face.

On the rooftop of King’s College Chapel

The overall mark consists of six components. First, a short dissertation (5.000 words max) on an object or building in Cambridge. Second, the meaning of art/architecture and the making of art, two modules made of an essay and a visual component each (four tests in total). Finally, the objects paper, a set of visual analyses on artefacts in Cambridge. In the essay parts, the student chooses some questions out of a set, and answers them in 3 hours. In meaning the questions to be answered are four, two for art and two for architecture, while in making they are only three. Timing is essential, as giving an incomplete answer can notably damage the outcome. Moreover, flexibility is required, as questions within a single test vary notably. In the paper on artistic techniques, for example, one might write an essay about the advantages of tempera paint in Medieval art followed by a comment on the relation between making and meaning in Henry Moore’s sculptures (as I actually had to).

At the Barbican Centre on a free day

The tests are marked by more examiners at the same time and students’ names are not used. Candidate numbers identify the booklets as well as the short dissertations, in order to reduce subjective turns. A part of the commission is made of Cambridge lecturers, but external examiners are summoned as well. Furthermore, the commissions change year by year.  There is a strong interest from the department in keeping the process fair and transparent, and the long marking process is justified by its cooperative nature. When results are released, it is possible to collect the marked dissertation, with a report from each of the two examiners who read it. The report is thorough, and analyses both the structure, the presentation, the solidity of the arguments, and the style of the work.

Jesus College May ball

The experience of exams has been greatly positive. I achieved the Grade I class, and I was able to determine some faults in my study method that, hopefully, will help me increasing my score in the coming academic year. As mentioned, this session will not have any visible result on my degree, but they were fundamental in order to build confidence toward a system that was totally new to me. At the same time, I believe they offered me a precious experience to work closely together with some of my coursemates, exchanging ideas and bibliographical suggestions. It is, I believe, the truly beautiful experience of community that the collegiate environment provides. In fact, I do not deny the fun during the parties in freshers’ week, but I think that in the long ago they will leave a much more shallow impression. As for my passion for art, I saw the depth of many among my peers just while studying with them, thinking and exchanging ideas.

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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