Trivial pursuits

Trivia seems to be a big thing for foreigners in Korea. A couple of bars have trivia nights and it’s a very popular event. More specifically, trivia seems to be for long-time foreigners who mostly like hanging out with other long-time foreigners and who are married or firmly attached. I suppose it’s the modern-day, younger version of our grandparents’ bingo nights.

I hate trivia. It’s not for the reasons above, although I do not (really) fit the demographic. It’s that it makes me feel stupid. And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s putting myself voluntarily into a situation to make me feel dumb as a doorknob. A fairly new friend asked me recently if I have OCD. She noticed how I cleaved my two sunnyside eggs into equal parts to lay them perfectly upon my oval-shaped pieces of toast. Yes, I suppose I do. I thought about this for the rest of the day. Whatever OCD I have it gets stronger the older I get.

Trivia is a form of test-taking, and test-taking is a nightmare for people with OCD, at least in my case. I see a question and I immediately break it down: I look at the phrasing of the question and single out bad word choices or incorrect grammar. I start thinking about the reasons behind the question; is this distinctly American? If the answer isn’t immediately apparent, I go into panic attacks. Should I know this? Do other people know it? Then the real trouble begins — I get paranoid. It’s a trick question. This answer seems likely, but maybe the test-takers are fucking with me. Then I panic. I come to see the wisdom and potential arguments in all (or many) of the possible answers. That’s the point when I give up, stop caring, and just pick something. Usually I get the answer wrong, sometimes even when I know the answer (that trick question mind-fuck). Dammit. Can we talk about this? No, we move on to the next question.

What’s the point of all this? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about going back to grad school to get my PhD. To get into a good graduate school you have to take something called the Graduate Record Examination or GRE. The exam is divided into three parts: a quantitative section (math — primarily algebra, geometry, and word problems), verbal section (vocabulary, reading comprehension), and a writing section (two essays). Each section is timed and the whole thing takes about 3.5 hours to complete. I took the GRE about six years ago before I went to get my Master’s degree. I bombed it of course, except for the writing part. I knew it while I took it, and I hated myself for days afterward.

GRE scores are purged after five years. So if I want to go back to school I need a new score result. For some stupid reason — stupidity, probably — I decided to take the exam while on vacation in the U.S this summer. I had my rationale. The test is different in Korea and is only given twice a year. I was going to be in the U.S. anyway, and I figured I’d have some downtime to study. Big mistake. I don’t know why this wasn’t obvious to me when I signed up, but never, ever take an exam on vacation. It doesn’t work. I studied as much as I could in between meeting friends, going camping, etc. But my head was not in it. Sure enough, I came to realize this only while taking the test itself. The first stage upon this realization was self-loathing. But worse was what came next: apathy. I stopped caring about its importance. None of the words or math I studied was actually on that particular version of the exam (or very little anyway), and I slept-walked through a couple of lame essays. I got my results, and yeah, I bombed. Then, a couple weeks later, I got my writing score: 4.0. Sweet Jesus, 4.0. Last time I got a 5.5. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a colossal failure.

So I’m angry at myself and I’m pissed off at the world for making me conform to their little game. ETS, the creators of the GRE, is a monopoly. It’s a company. It’s become the standard for universities out of administrative laziness. Worse, it’s not an indicator of intelligence, creativity, or ability. It measures one very limited form of ability, that being the ability to take a test. Students learn, not how to use words, math, and making an argument in the real world, but how to pass one organization’s examination. If you want to do well, you must gain the ability to memorize a set of rules and conform your brain to a particular structure. This ability can be trained through expensive private schooling. If you’ve got the cash and the time, do all the schooling you want. Nobody knows that you did, and nobody seems to care. So congratulations, institutes of higher learning, you use, as one of your principal forms of screening candidates, an exam that singles out people with rich parents and people who have all the free time in the world to learn something that is useless in daily life.

To be fair, the GRE is only one aspect in a doctoral application. In my field in particular, universities and specific departments also take into account ones personal statement, writing examples, and letters of recommendation, among other, more minor things. Departments mostly care about this other stuff. But the university in most cases cares a great deal about the GRE because a university is a massive bureaucracy that wants to stamp something and move on. As a result, GRE scores have a huge impact on financial aid packages. In some cases (such as mine) the aid package and teaching possibilities are what make the endeavor feasible. For me, the GRE is huge. And I failed.

I’ve been around long enough to know that I’m much better with imagination, concepts, and experiential learning than I am with factual recall. My brain has a slow seek time to start with, but more than that, I collapse under the weight of rigidity. It’s an issue of attitude, and I have a really pissy one when it comes to what I view as an oppressive structure. Some person or organization has developed a single formula for every person subjected to it, disregarding the nuances of individual experience, knowledge and personality that each of us has. This entity expects me to conform to it and that is how I am to be judged. There will be no discussion; no critique of method is allowed; no questions will be asked. You may not explain yourself, make an argument, challenge the structure, or disregard its validity. I know this going in, I think about it during the process, and I seethe about it when it’s over. Even in the rare times when I’ve done well on an exam, I feel as though I’ve gone through a fist fight and through some stroke of luck managed to emerge on top, but still pissed off at the bastard for starting shit in the first place.

So now I have a decision to make: Take it again (and subject myself to all that) or say screw it and submit apps with my lame scores. It’s not a simple matter. First is logistics (I’d have to go to Japan). Second is I’m extremely busy this semester. Why pour all this time and energy into something, expecting a different outcome, but knowing that the result will probably be the same? Come to think of it, isn’t that the definition of insanity?

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One Response to “Trivial pursuits”

  1. Maybe you shouldn’t have gone to that alternative school that believes in individualism. I happen to value individualism.

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