On Sleep and Academics

I am a slow sleeper. Sleep I find, takes time. Rest and ritual, I need to be coaxed, to be lifted and then quietly released into the arms of the night. Pitch dark the room, soft the bed, the feathery weight of a duvet and moment by moment the day bids its farewell.
I am a nightly thinker and before I let sleep take over, I go over my day. The visits I made, the people I met. Words spoken, thoughts thought and discarded and taken up again. A forgotten phone call perhaps. A hesitation, a smile, noticed too late. Images of friends, children. Should I have? Should I not have? Shall I tomorrow? And so the day unfolds and flows from light into dark into an invisible dawn.
With sleep come dreams. Impossible settings, peopled by improbable creatures from the past and the present doing the unexpected. They pop up, happen and fade, return and vanish. Only sometimes, at the earliest, earliest light does a fragment of the dream remain, shimmering in front of me. The mind reaches out, thinks it understands but it is already too late. Gone.

While I toss and turn and wait and ponder, my husband sleeps. He puts down his head, manages a feeble ‘good night’ and sleeps. He moves little. He makes no noises. Does not speak, does not talk. He does not get up. He sleeps.
Merely lying besides him is restful. His breath, his quietness. The sleep of the other as a sleep of mine. Therapeutic in its own way.
I try not to be envious. Not to be infuriated at the depth of his sleep. He deserves it.
But every so often, he will suddenly wake up. A turn, a sigh, a shudder. And inevitably the next morning he will say, “I dreamed I had an exam”.

Thirty years onwards and yes, my husband still has nightmares about sitting his university exams. And I can not help but wonder, how many of us share his anxieties? And is there a name for it?
There is boarding school syndrome. There are exam related illnesses. Depression due to extreme target setting. There is cyber bullying whether or not result-related. But is there a belated post-exam syndrome? And should we tackle it?

The reason for my inquiry is simple. A university in Belgium yesterday had to admit it had lost 80 exam papers. The collected exam papers had been placed in a box on a professor’s desk and left there for the cleaning crew to be taken and disposed of. And despite the regret at the incident, students, so the university stated, would have to sit the exam a second time. There could have been other solutions. But that is beside the point. The point is, the added stress. And new, future nightmares. Not only, “will I pass?” but also, “will they lose my copy?”

Okay okay. I exaggerate. But still, thousands of students are sitting their exams right now. They have my sympathy. I wish them well. And their mothers and fathers and, future partners.
As for the universities…
Academia is not getting a particularly positive press. Forged research results, doubts about the correlation between rising fees and grade inflation, questions about status and pay of academics in general, the proliferation of programs and courses. Apart from displacing exam papers, universities seem for the moment good at shooting themselves in the foot.

Only this week, the English biochemist and Nobel laureate Tim Hunt could not leave well enough alone. “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.”
His words caused no tears, just a #distractinglysexy outcry. And his resignation.

The relatively small university of Antwerp decided it is going to make the course “Islamic Worlds’ compulsory in its Bachelor of History program. “Never has Islam touched as many lives …. We are too Eurocentric… Young muslims know as little about their culture as we do about theirs,” the university spokespeople say.
I disagree. The university’s core mission is, in this case, the teaching of history, not bowing to societal pressure. Belgium (and Antwerp) has a history involving many nationalities, many religions. Picking out one is not ‘universus’, whole or entire. It is small and selective.

Also this week we learned that The University of Melbourne is offering a degree course on the Eurovision Song Contest.
“Europe through the powerful prism of the Eurovision Song Contest. We explore fundamental issues important to understanding Europe, such as the rise of the European Union, European integration and expansion, nation branding, as well as the rise of English, and the expression of cultural and social diversity in all its forms. Oh yeah and then there is also the music…”
#distractinglyridiculous? or #distractinglyinsulting? I may be European, I am not Eurovision, mate!

Let us end on some good news. The 80 papers have been found! No need for the students to resit the exam. No extra nightmares.

All characters sleeping/dreaming in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.