Et tu, Brute?

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For the British student abroad in Italy seeking to pass her exams at a foreign university, her wealth of examination experience up to that point will be of little practical guidance.In the ancient mediterranean philosophic tradition, the Italians continue to be tested orally, in subjects from Law to Biology. Which might go some way to explaining why Cicero’s descendants are still such impressive public speakers.
Paulo Marolda, professor of “Art Theory and Esthetic Experience”, is no exception. In aversion to the popular modern education technology of Powerpoint, videos and image references, Marolda prefers a pared-down style of tuition; one of pure oral transmission.Gazing out at the motley crew of Italian goths, punks and fast-fashion junkies (who make up the dramatic arts department), he takes the opportunity thrice-weekly to star in his very own self-written dramatic monologue. A sort of Socrates figure, he will conjure up imagined queries from his sleepy audience: “What’s that you say?” “A good point!” “No no no…”

Last Tuesday saw the close of an eight-week lecture series, throughout which he would tumble into class belly-first, half an hour late, navy linen jacket crumpled, ipod tangled somewhere between his chinos and his left-side pocket; before slamming his reddish-brown leather briefcase down on the desk, seating himself behind it, swallowing, shifting his feet apart and spreading his two arms wide as wings to either side of him, palms flat on table, fingers pointed outwards; before proceeding to boom his trajectory on the historic development of esthetic theory out to the theatre for the following hour and a half.

The exam was scheduled for June. But he informed us two weeks ago that he’d rather do it on 9am Friday 13th April for those with surnames A-L and Friday 20th for M-Z.
So Buon Studio and Happy Easter!

I resigned myself to buying the two expensive books and photocopied handouts and managed to get through most of the material in time: Edmund Huuserl’s “The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology” (a bit ambitious in Italian!) And John Dewey’s “Art and Experience”.

On the day, he arrived characteristically late. And looked upon the pallid twenty-something turnouts in the room, laughing at the number of doctors’ appointment excuses he had received.

“Allora…how shall we do this?” “Shall I just ask you out?” he questioned his unresponsive audience.

In the end it was every man for himself in choosing when he wanted to get the exam done. I wasn’t pushy enough to get in there quickly, so had to wait till after lunch.

The Italian oral exam is a lot about performance. You are judged as much on your delivery and confidence as on content. And you perform in front of everyone (as much as Marolda will let you get a word in edge-ways). Which you could argue gives those who wait a strong advantage, having had a chance to listen in.

The system leaves no room for mark-checking and the generosity of examiners will vary greatly. It seems that just sitting through the barrage of questioning though, without having studied and with a bit of improvisation will get you at least as far as the 18/30 passmark.

I had imagined Marolda to be a kind examiner. And he didn’t disappoint – starting every interview by asking the examinee what they wanted to talk about. So you could choose your own trajectory – with Marolda interrupting regularly to pass judgement to the rest of the attentive room. At the end of each exam he would analyse the performance and throw in a remark for the audience’s amusement: “Your friend was better than you” or “Evidently, he didn’t know what he was talking about there”.

As the hours passed I started to lose focus on what was being said. And began instead to watch Marolda’s saggy skin transmorph his visage, a massive hand imprinting a hefty cheek like putty. He’d make a good Julius Caesar, I imagined. With his light grey hair, heavy build, blue eyes and wide bare forehead. Once could easily imagine his ancient Roman features transformed with a toga and him delivering the final words, “Not you, Brutus!”

My mind-wanderings were shattered by the interruption of a noisy ring-tone. And I cringed inwardly for the culprit. Only to learn that it was in fact Marolda’s mobile, which he didn’t hesitate to answer. Proceeding with a casual discussion on groceries and the weather, he signed off after several minutes with a casual “Buon Pranz’” (have a good lunch!) before redirecting his attention to the expectant examinee.

By the time my turn came heavy rain had started to pound the flimsy roof and I was too fased out to be nervous. I proceeded with a basic argument of the meaning of “esthetics” in ancient times, how that changed in the renaissance and then with the sixteenth-century scientific revolution.

Disappointingly, he interrupted me very little, allowing me to ramble on. His only question was to ask me to define exactly what was revolutionary about Galileo’s thinking. I mustered something about the development of mathematical, geometrical thinking as the only sure way to understand reality. Before he turned to his depleted audience.

“Well, evidently she is familiar with the basic ideas” he announced.

Before launching into a detailed comparison between my performance and that of a French friend’s. His final conclusion?

“Of course we must take into account that the French and Spanish, Latin-based languages, are closer to Italian. Therefore, I will also give you 27/30!”

At which point I thanked him, breathed a sigh of relief, and bowed from the stage.

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