Karl Marx, who spent endless hours in the British Museum poring over the "blue books" of Parliamentary proceedings, could at least hope that his work would achieve some sort of permanence. There is no such consolation, for the 4,000-odd Harvard students who next week will attack another kind of blue book. Although these men will receive in return a postcard with a mark on it, in most cases they will never either see the exam booklets again or learn the instructor's reasons for the mark. The majority of the blue books, which represent a phenomenal number of man-hours of labor, will remain for several months in some Departmental office and then be burned.
The College used to believe that there was something inevitable about "the flames of Holoyoke House." The Administration, it was said, had a rule providing that instructors could not return exam books to their authors--that the books must be kept for a certain length of time and then destroyed. Two years ago, however, an enterprising University Hall secretary dug through the archives, discovered that there was no such rule after all, and thus deprived Faculty members of their standard excuse for not handing back the blue books.
Since that time an increasing number of corrected books have seeped back into the hands of students. Most full year courses now return their midyear examinations, since students may improve in the spring by a knowledge of their mistakes and since the non-final grades will stimulate no very heated controversies.
In regard to final exams, however, most Departments still observe the mystic rite of keeping the blue books for several months and then burning them. In June this may be defensible, since most students have left Cambridge by the time the books are corrected. But in the fall term there seems no reason why half-courses like History 61a and Comparative Literature 166 should continue to withhold final exam books from their authors. If a man has read a few thousand words for the course and written a three-hour examination, he deserves to know just why he got his C-plus.
If graders know that final exams will be returned to students, they will have to take more time with their corrections, adding longer and more careful comments to the student's work. This necessity will undoubtedly increase the burden of the already underpaid and overworked junior Faculty member. Such conscientious grading, however, does not seem an unfair demand, at a College that purportedly concentrates less on what goes into a student's academic record, than on what goes into his head.