Up until a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t sat an exam since before the turn of the millennium1 — 1998, to be precise, the finals of my primary degree (nothing less than a BSc in Biotechnology, I’d have you know!!)2. While my success in these final exams would supposedly have a significant bearing on my future career prospects (they were sure as hell wrong about that3), I was considerably more nervous this time around. You see, when I signed up for an MSc in brewing and distilling last September I didn’t know whether I still had It anymore, It being the ability to pass exams. I wasn’t sure if the old noggin was up to the rigours of book-learning, essay-writing and exam-sitting. Was there, I wondered, enough of the old grey matter still nestling away inside my middle-aged cranium to bear its stuffing with terabytes of brewing-related facts and figures, and was whatever was there in sufficient working order to allow rapid information access and retrieval in the context of an exam? In other words: was there enough hard disk space present and was the operating system still whirring about in reasonable enough quick-time to allow me study for and perform in exams?
I’m over forty. I am not the same me as the young buck who skipped down the steps of NUIG’s Aula Maxima with parchment in hand grandly reading: testanture hae literae Gradum Baccalaureatum Scientiae in Universitate Hiberniea Nationali apud Galvium . . . The body doesn’t do much skipping these days, what with the wonky ankle and the intermittent lumbago, and there’s more body for the body to haul around, if you get my drift. Also — and this I say with deeper regret — neither is the mind what it once was. While I’m not yet a drooling dullard, a dotage-beset dumb-bell at the door of doddery dementia, I recognise that I am not as sharp as I used to be. I get stuck for words more than I used to, peppering my speech with whatchamacallits, doohickeys, yokes, thingies and whatshisfaces. I forget things. Mix things up. New concepts take longer to sink in. I’m slower: joining mental dots takes an age these days.
When I got my course materials and set about a primary sweep through the modules I’d be sitting this year, the first thing that hit me was that my main adversary would be time — not in the sense of the sweep of years between my college days and now having eroded my mental faculties, but in the sense of having to fit study and assignment writing into an already packed schedule. I work. I have two kids. I write. I have a number of hobbies: gardening (balconing, really!); reading; playing the guitar. There’s household chores. A bit of exercise. A smidgen of TV, reading the newspaper, general downtime. The question was: into which crack in my day would I fit an hour or so of study? I managed to do it, in the initial stages by getting up an hour earlier, and as exams approached by giving things up; my blog, social media, TV, downtime. What struck me was how privileged my teenage and young adult self had been. The younger me at secondary school and university had all the time in the world to study. My life was dedicated to study and revolved around jumping a series of hurdles to get to the next stage: Intermediate Certificate; Leaving Certificate; degree; masters4. Not only did I not have any job or responsibilities to get in the way of my study, I had a support team for much of my academic career. In the run-up to the Leaving Cert, family meal times at home revolved around my study schedule, and I didn’t have to lift a finger, bar a daily half hour’s dog walking, which came as a welcome break as exams drew nearer. I guess that’s called being a professional student. If any young folk are reading these words, here’s some free advice: cherish being a professional student. It’s a charmed life; you may never again be able to fully devote yourself to your studies as you can do at present.
The second thing I realised was that studying indeed came harder to me than twenty years ago, especially memorising lists, species names or those of chemical compounds. Whereas before I would have memorised in a snip the eight reasons why a low mash pH is advantageous for the optimum extraction of sugars from malted grain, or been able to rattle off the characteristics of Obesumbacterium proteus after one or two read-throughs, my middle aged self took quite a while to cram this kind of data into his noggin. There was one compound in particular — polyvinylpolyprrolidone (PVPP) — which no matter what I did, be it writing in out a dozen times in a row or pacing around the room singing it, I could never seem to remember. The list of fusel alcohols found in beer (combinations of ethyls, iso-amyls, iso-butyl etc.) — ditto. I blame a combination of things for the poor swatting form I displayed compared to before: rustiness; too many distractions (kids, work, shopping, cooking); and, yes, an undeniable deterioration of cerebral disk speed. There was a discernible lack of zing to my thought processes while studying. Whereas before I would have tied concepts together when studying, and even jumped ahead of the material, scribbling equations and flow diagrams from articles and books I had come across earlier, now, most of the time I was too busy grappling with the paragraph or equation in front of me to mentally skip to farther reaches of the subject. I often felt like a boxer who has lost his fleetness of foot, a dancer who has lost his jive, a footballer whose turn of pace has deserted him. I did have some good days, but they tended to be fewer and farther between than before.
But what I had lost in zippiness, I discovered I had gained in another important area: stamina. As a young man I found it impossible to drag myself out of bed before eight in the morning — let’s just say I needed my sleep. When exams drew near, or an assignment was due, I always tried to steal an extra hour or two of study time by getting up at perhaps half six or seven. But no matter how much pressure was on me or how close the deadline, my up-with-the-lark resolution never lasted for more than a couple of days. In contrast, the new-old me is a decidedly early riser. Whatever change has occurred in my physiology, I can now get up at five or six and, daisy-fresh, plough into the books. In terms of writing, I find I am far more creative and productive a couple of hours either side of dawn than at any other time of the day. I also discovered that I can stay the course longer than my teenage self. He was a successful student, worked hard, got good marks, but he was like one of those short-haul island-hopper airplanes. Back in those days, six hours of hitting the books saw the poor lad being overcome by fatigue, reduced to an amorphous quivering schmoop. The new-old me is capable of knuckling down for far longer than him before the ectoplasmic state takes hold. I wonder if this phenomenon is also physiological, or has it to do with the toughening up — the wizening — that twenty years of adulthood brings?
And finally, I was struck by one thing that hasn’t changed about studying and sitting exams: the highs. There is nothing like the high you can get from a couple of hours of good studying. Or perhaps the endorphin rush you receive following a successful, constructive study session is indeed comparable to something else — athlete’s high. After my first study high in two decades, I was brought back to why I enjoyed studying and exams so much as a youth: the feedback you get from your body as a student who has completed his/her objectives and put in a couple of good hours of hard slog is heady and instantaneous. If you settle into a strict study routine, these instantaneous scholarly rewards just keep coming. This is why people can get addicted to study, and why post-exam blues (which I also experienced anew) is a real phenomenon. The successful sitting of an exam can also be a source of cheap thrills. For the second of the two exams I sat a couple of weeks ago, I emerged from the exam hall grinning like a Cheshire cat and as giddy as a young goat. The kind of buzz of sheer delight I got from knowing that I’d aced this exam is hard to find at my stage in life, where pleasures are mostly slow burners. I’m pretty sure I’m coming back for more and signing myself up for another couple of modules, so those highs will keep on rolling in!
1These exams have been the reason for my six month absence from the blogosphere.
2I am providing those of you with basic arithmetic skills a clue as to my age.
3I got first-class honours and am working in a job related to my educational qualification, but I probably earn less wonga and enjoy less social status than the guy who services the schlurpy machine at McDonald’s.
4I already happen to have a masters — in plant biotechnology. So there!!