9th June

Silence Please - Exam in Progress

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 College, 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 departments. 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


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14 June