Wednesday, June 11, 2008

10.00-12.30: Analysis

Write using quantifiers what it means, when

a) lim f (x) = ∞,


b) lim f (x) = b,


c) lim f (x) = ∞

The exams period presents to invigilators the question of difference in the high education system. Put simply: the exams papers are of a standard rectangular shape, and so are the answer booklets. One finds oneself often in the same class room day after day, filling the same forms, announcing the same announcements. All exams are the same for us, but the students are different. The computer science people never resemble the medieval history crowd (crowd may be a bit exaggerated term in the case of medieval studies). As an invigilator one has a lot of time to stare at a group of people and you inevitably starts to think of gender, race, and social reproduction through choices of learning. When it gets really boring, you start playing the equal opportunities (affirmative action) officer, counting categories: male/female, black and white, pensioners and below 30.

The college is relatively a progressive one and was established in order to make university education accessible to people who could not afford to take three years off. All classes are in the evenings and most courses are part-time, so people with jobs and families can take them. As a result, it represents better than other colleges (you believe) London's population in its diversity. From your position as a bored invigilator collecting haphazard impressions you can establish that women make a third to two thirds of students, and that "people of colour" make typically a third to half of classes, like they do in the metropolitan. But this of course varies from one exam to another. In this mathematics exam this morning eight out of twelve were black (African) or Asian (i.e. from the Indian subcontinent). Only one woman student out of 12.

When it comes to race, these generalisations are crude as some black people are third generation British, while the "whites" are - very often - Greek or Lithuanians who have not been here long. And how do you count Turkish people? Does being Muslim make you black? Are Jews white enough by now (they weren't a century ago)? The whole thing is quite tasteless. But then, unavoidable. Difference exists in society, and it informs people's choices. Black students, for example, are more likely to take science and business classes, and less likely to take English and History. It's been interesting to follow the Polish immigration through the invigilations: four years ago there was barely one polish student, but in last week's psychology exams they made some 15% of the class, all of them women (yes psychology is overwhelmingly women students). The fact remains that British History students are white, older, and have English names. And so the generalisation that immigrants and their children go towards "useful" or "practical" subjects. Is learning "un-useful" things like Art History derived from privilege, then? Or does it (still) represent a discourse which excludes most Londoners?

These thoughts starts to resemble a sociology exam, so you return to look at your book on Family and Court in Late Ottoman Palestine.

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