I think the devil must be in command of the weather during the exam season. The hottest, most uncomfortably humid conditions arrive just in time for the biggest exam days. The high pressure combined with student stress can make for a particularly fraught and difficult week on campus.
I know some people think invigilation is a tremendous waste of resources and that members of staff should use their time more productively. Perhaps our time could be better served but invigilation also has its own reward. Wandering up and down the aisle, invigilators do next to nothing other than hand out additional sheets of paper and pieces of string necessary to tie the extra pages to the exam script.
As the students rack their brains, a cloud of serious thinking hangs over them and the calm of the exam room gives the invigilator space for their own thoughts too. Let’s face it, the licence to do nothing is a rare luxury amid the frantic hubbub of academic life. Invigilation insists on a kind of institutional idleness. Well, most of the time.
The quiet can be difficult to maintain particularly on an urban campus like Goldsmiths, in the middle of noisy New Cross, south London. It is a blistering hot afternoon in early June and I’ve been called to act as a standby invigilator for the media studies department. Candidates get down to the job of thinking and scribbling as I look forward to a couple of hours of purposeless contemplation. A larger significance is contained in the fragile stillness of the exam room.
Sociologist Fran Tonkiss wrote: ‘The Babel of the crowd and the wordless solitude of the individual in a noisy city capture in sound a larger urban tension between collective and subjective life. Sometimes it can be . . . hard even to listen to one’s own thoughts, amongst all the noise.’ We need to block out the throng of collective activity to hear ourselves think.
Today the background noise of the city seems at a much higher pitch than usual. I start to make an aural inventory: the sound of the jets passing overhead, the incessant police sirens, a helicopter buzzing probably monitoring the traffic, a distant door slamming, a group of excited students whose laughter is suddenly muted after a member of staff says reproachfully, ‘Shsssh, there is an exam in progress!’
Then an additional intrusion seeps into the exam room’s soundscape. This is a sound too far! A high operatic voice repeats a melody over and over, each time more out of tune than the last. It is excruciating, a vocal equivalent of sharp fingernails being dragged slowly over a blackboard. The pained look on one young woman’s face says it all. She put up her hand and I walk over. I whisper, ‘Do you want me to try and do something about that racket?’ She nods pathetically like someone suffering from a mild dose of the flu.
I head off to find the tuneless singer but this, it turns out, is easier said than done. The voice seems to be everywhere and nowhere. I follow my ears. The singer is in full blast at an appallingly high and ill-pitched frequency. Every time I feel like I am getting close it goes quieter again. As I turn another corner it seems to get louder. There is no pattern, like some tortuous parlour game of sonic hide-and-seek.
I try the floor above but still the voice remains evasive. I head in desperation for the music department some distance from where the exam is actually taking place. Where could the voice possibly be coming from? The secretary points me in the direction of a rehearsal room two floors below where the exam is being held. As I follow the directions the piercing voice gets louder; this time I am on the right track. There are about a dozen practice rooms all in a line. The tuneless offender’s discordant tones are emanating from Room 12. I knock. A small blond-haired music student opens the door. It seems impossible that such an incredible din can be coming from such a slight frame. I tell her that there is an exam going on upstairs. ‘Ooh sorry’, she says. ‘I’ll come back later.’
It’s probably taken twenty minutes to track down the culprit but it feels more like an hour. The exertion of running up and down stairs in the heat means I am ‘glowing’ slightly. The student who made the initial complaint still has a pained expression on her face, the anguish probably induced by an ambiguously worded question on the paper. At least it is quiet now – well, except for the jet engines, police sirens and the new addition of a barking dog!
And then . . . Oh no, not again: another uninvited guest in the sonic shape of a jazz saxophone. The melody is perfect but a chorus of sighs from the long-suffering students meets this rendition of Charlie Parker’s ‘Cool Blues’. I know where the guilty party is hiding and a few minutes later calm is restored. Returning to the exam room I pick up some pieces of string and sheets of extra paper and resume invigilation responsibilities, luxuriating in the relative peace of idle contemplation.