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The Proctor's Life Across the Pond

May 31, 2007

This tasteful bit of signage accessorizes the Student Administration Office at Queen Mary College in London:

Important Message to Invigilators [exam proctors to you and me]

Candidates attempting to cheat in an exam by writing on a part of their body must be reported to the chief invigilator immediately.

Please speak to an exam attendant who will contact the student administration office. Keep the students under close observation to ensure that they do not attempt to erase the evidence.

The chief invigilator will arrange for a member of staff with a camera to come to the exam room to photograph the evidence to present to the examinations offences panel.

Trust in students doesn’t come easily to the folks in administration at Queen Mary, and it doesn’t come at all during final exam time, a just-concluded, month-plus-long interregnum in which I did the invigilator thing. By the lights of American testing, the raft of anti-cheating strictures enforced by Queen Mary may suggest a university under siege; but for the British students who take the exams, the scenario is all rather routine.

I write as a native of New York City who’s taught at a number of metropolitan-area colleges, at which the operative regulatory ethos for testing goes something like this: It’s your class, cowboy – deal with it. And of course that open-ended desideratum provides for no final at all, if the instructor is so moved.

But you’ll see nothing of the sort at Queen Mary, a branch of the University of London in the city’s proletarian Mile End quarter. Here the scrutiny begins before students make their way into the testing room: an attendant - usually a graduate student - sits hard by the door and inspects photo IDs (upon which student names are titled, a quaintly decorous British touch; men are Mr. and unmarried women are Miss, though I’ve also seen a few Drs.).

Once having been waved through that checkpoint, test-takers proceed to prominently-numbered desks, to which they’ve been assigned by student ID number. No fewer than two invigilators stand watch in the classroom, the actual number proportioned to room population. The students are immediately ordered to stow their jackets and other paraphernalia in the front or the side of the room, a time-honored stratagem in the UK that’s deployed in the lower grade levels as well. Once seated, the senior invigilator circumnavigates the classroom and inspects the IDs anew, cross-referencing these to table number. (They take their outlaws seriously here; a student in a final at the University of York was recently apprehended - by the police -- for posing as the student who had hired him.).

Cell phones are silenced and consigned to the floor at the feet of their owners, and students are forbidden from bringing bottled water to the exam, for fear they may strip the bottle labels, inscribe crib notes upon them, paste them back, and espy the notes through the plastic. But because that interdiction is routinely flouted, we resort to Plan B -- invigilators peruse the labels, or request they be peeled off the bottles. Those law-abiders who actually comply (aqua-esce?) with the liquid ban are furnished with Queen Mary’s own water supply, served up upon request by the invigilators in plastic cups. It’s one more reason why we make the big money.

There’s more. Transparent pencil cases may be poised atop tables, but the opaque varieties must be shunted to the floor, neighboring the cell phones. Pencils are distributed for multiple-choice exams, but these must be returned. Ringing phones during exams are deemed offenses and reported, though without reprisal. Test takers may not leave the room during the exam’s first 30 minutes, in order to thwart rendezvous with latecomers in the halls craving a test preview (students are likewise officially barred from leaving during the final 15 minutes, but leniencies are extended here). And Queen Mary’s heavily Muslim student body has touched off an at least a theoretical concern with veiled women - of whom there are a very small number - perpetrating an impersonation scam, though no incidents of this kind seem to have been reported. (The college’s by-the-book invigilator’s marching orders are on view here.)

And, needless to say, all visits to the bathroom are accompanied (and recorded, in theory), usually by the attendant (depending on the demographics on hand, a male attendant or invigilator may escort a woman, and vice versa; but in any case, the staffer pulls up short by the door); and it is by that tiled threshold where biological impulsion, real or alleged, trumps Queen Mary’s best efforts to flex the strong-arm of probity against its students. Short of the most up-close-and-personal surveillance here -- and even Queen Mary hasn’t gone that far -- there is nothing the college can do to preempt the most low-tech of cheating expedients, i.e., notes cached in a student’s jeans and the like, to be reviewed in the loo. And while that irremediable vulnerability is granted, the college does what it can, sometimes commanding attendants to conduct post-test sweeps of bathrooms, and sometimes recovering stashes of notes. If nature calls simultaneously, an invigilator and an attendant may each chaperone an urge-seized student -- but the room is never wholly abandoned, a doomsday scenario to be forestalled at all costs. Simply put, then, the honor code is not an option at Queen Mary.

Of course, I’ve yet to explain exactly what I’m doing at Queen Mary, invigilating someone else’s exams. People like me invigilate because instructors here don’t anymore, for whatever reason. One professor told me some of his colleagues brought such scant rigor to the invigilation task that students would take to cheating in plain sight, while an administrator allowed that instructors use their newfound hours to consecrate that much more time to research, though I still don’t know if he really meant that. One suspects in addition that certain subsidiary expectations of the role -- e.g., flight-attendant beverage duties, interpolating slivers of paper between jittery tables and the floor, sectioning off ribbons of toilet paper--tissues for runny-nosed students, and the inevitable bathroom detail -- fail to comport with the professorial self concept. To lift a locution from London’s streets, it seems instructors can’t be bovvered to invigilate, thus clearing the runway for Hessians like me who can be expected to bring at least some measure of attentiveness to the task (a query of mine about the invigilation waiver for instructors, put to the UK’s UCU university teacher union, has gone unanswered).

And it’s here where the process can get a little messy. Instructors usually (but not always) make cameo appearances at the outset of exams, entertaining student questions about the test before disappearing, sometimes rather quickly. They are, however, expected to remain at the ready throughout the final at a reachable number, and may be asked to revisit the test site should additional issues emerge. Attendants are (supposed to be) issued with cell phones so that medical staff can be dialed when events so compel, in addition to the ostensibly on-call instructors, who might, or might not, be available. If they’re not, big problems can result, and sometimes do, but students are at least afforded a notable bit of recourse: they can submit a post-test form on which they explain why the feel a question was ambiguously or errantly worded. And in fact a certain inadvertent wisdom informs the instructor-less process; if, after all, I’m invigilating the Physics of Galaxies final -- quite possibly the flat-out scariest test I’ve ever seen -- I can’t coyly drop any helpful hints to students, even if I want to. My doctorate in sociology qualifies me as an abject, and guileless, layman here.

Does the system work? I would say that by and large it does, though no one harbors any illusions about zero tolerance here. One of the people in charge tells me that infractions are down this year, after a “bumper crop” of students behaving badly in 2006. Bomb scares -- a classic finals diversionary tactic -- appear to have had their day here, and we’re prepared believe the unexploded World War II device discovered not far from the campus last week was a coincidence. For the most part, the students on my watch have conducted themselves with all due rectitude, but significant constraints are in place, after all. One could sociologize about the matter all day, but the inarguable reality is that for certain social settings deterrence works, and it seems to work here.

But the incipient question -- whether the lockdown practices described above could work in the United States -- is hard to answer. American students might chafe at the trammels the UK clamps atop its system and give loud voice to their irritation; and while many American instructors could be expected to cheer the release from test oversight to which Queen Mary treats its staff, other academics might blast the idea as an encroachment on their academic freedom. British students, habituated to a national curriculum and inhabiting similar exam environments throughout their schooling, don’t seem to mind; American students might, at least at first.

But if nothing else, the invigilation experience stokes the reverie, flashing me back to my finals at Queens College in New York -- my very own finals, proctored before my very own classes by my very own solitary self, when I used to literally dash to the bathroom whenever nature called, racing back to quell the anomie loosed upon my unattended students during those three terrifying minutes. What happened during those anarchic intervals, I cannot know. But it doesn’t matter, now; it can’t happen here. And if you think it can, check out the sign in Student Administration.

Bio

When he’s not invigilating, Abbott Katz is registrar/examinations officer at MST College, in London.

 

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