Here’s To Monkey Wrenches

Have you thought about the monkey wrenches that can be thrown into your finely tuned exam plans? Maybe this is a phrase you have not heard before. It is one of those interesting phrases with several possible etymologies. One possible etymology is a 19th Century American English idiom meaning to upset plans by tossing a wrench into operating machinery.

Other possible etymologies are from the French word saboter which is derived from sabot. Sabot can mean a wooden shoe, to kick with a shoe or be French slang for an unskilled worker. There are potential associations with the Luddites and possible associations as far back as textile workers in 15th century Netherlands. These long ago textile workers, who feared the monkey wrench automated weaving machinery would throw into their economic well-being, kicked their wooden sabots (shoes) into the moving parts of the mechanical weaving machines to ‘sabotage’ the operations; something to remember when reading ‘Hard Times.’ Whichever etymology appeals, it is quite something for a student of the English language to appreciate. Besides the irony, I like the richness of language laced with evocative phrases like ‘throw a monkey wrench into the works.’ For me this phrase is particularly descriptive of the period between the return of marking scheme essays and exam day.  Receiving my papers and tutor’s comments from the marking scheme makes exams and the end of term suddenly feel very immediate.

 It feels very immediate and generates a great sense if urgency because exams are no longer some abstraction. The sudden need to read and revise according to a very specific timeline and plan means I must refine and narrow my focus. And monkey wrenches with the potential to sabotage my success seem to pop up everywhere I turn.  The return of marking scheme essays is my version of ‘Crossing the Rubicon;’ it is the exam point of no return. As I now read the papers I submitted objectively, and study the tutor’s comments carefully, I sometimes wonder how the ideas I put on paper sprang from my on fair brain. The tutor’s comments always point out issues that are both subtle and obvious at the same time. This paradox delivers quite a jolt that compresses the time gap between now and exam day. I always appreciate the tutor’s response to my papers, and always feel very surprised by how what I wrote skirts my intended answer. The tutor’s comments point out the substance and details of what I intended to say but did not quite get onto the paper.

 The ability to say what I mean in my exam essays can be affected by some surprising monkey wrenches. For example, exam day is emotionally and physically disruptive. The change in schedule, working in a strange place, and needing to perform within the parameters of exam regulations are some of my boggarts. I am particularly sensitive to changes in my schedule, so I practice exam days. My very supportive husband gives me wonderful advice based his years of coaching experience: repeat exam day as many times as you can until the schedule and process is mastered. I do this by packing my pens and paper along with a print out of a sample exam, setting my alarm, getting up early, then driving across town to my library. I set  up to being my ‘exam’ at 9am sharp, then call ‘pencils up’ at noon.  It I am exhausted when I come home to benchmark my efforts and outcomes I know I need another practice day.

 The outcomes of my practice exam days teach me a great deal about my study and revision needs. There are a lot of potential monkey wrenches associated with my revision process. The one I feel most keenly is use of time, and what pedagogy to privilege over others. After all, there are only eight weeks until exams. So here’s to anticipating monkey wrenches, and embracing all they can teach us between now and the first week of May.

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