The Most Awful Question
I was especially giddy right before winter break this year. Tired and just recovering from a surprise attack of the flu, I had been looking forward to my two weeks of food, fun and relaxaton with more relish than usual. In this pre-break state of mind, our system of having finals (and final papers) take place in January always seemed like a good idea to me: I'd take some time off, sleep late, forget about deadlines and return to Cambridge refreshed, invigorated and ready to work.
Though I continue to fall into this trap every year, I now know that my mid-December visions of a worry-free vacation and a productive, efficient reading period are a stretch at best and imaginary at worst. It's not the workload that really bothers me. It's not even the schedule itself that makes me rue this time of year, because in some ways our post-break exam system is a blessing: no other school I know of gives its students quite this much time to prepare for exams and catch up on reading that got skimmed, forgotten or ignored during the semester.
No, what makes me twitch and tremble is having to explain to everyone I know why I must be back in Cambridge on the fourth of January, and watching them gasp in shock and dismay upon hearing that I have yet to complete major portions of my work for the semester. In my opinion, the simple question "How long is your winter break?" is the worst one you can ask a Harvard student. Surely I am not alone in experiencing this painful ritual year after year.
This year my vacation excitement was squashed even before I even got home. I snuck away within minutes of my last section, speeding off to the Delta Shuttle at Logan. A friendly businessman seated next to me struck up a conversation. Correctly identifying me as a college student, he asked the usual questions, including whether I was happy to be done with my exams. He blanched when I told him about our raw deal. Was I going to study at home, during the holidays? Unlikely, I answered. Yet inevitably on the way home from the airport I was thinking about the Warren Court and Walt Whitman, and not the joys of home-cooked food or New York City in Winter.
Of Course I did enjoy good food and the company of friends and family, giving only occasional thought to my reading period workload. But lest I got too complacent lazing about in front of the warm glow of the television, someone unfamiliar with my peculiar predicament was always there to remind me.
The worst part is, it's really not so bad-at least it wouldn't be if everyone didn't continue to point out to me just how bad it is. Some of my relatives, who smilingly call our fall semester exam system "torture", unintentionally rub salt in an open wound. Most of the friends I've kept from high school are used to my touchiness on this issue by now. They still ask how long I'll be in town for, but they only raise their eyebrows or pat me comfortingly on the back in response. But by then the guilt mechanism has kicked in and sympathy doesn't help.
There are a few professors who, bless them, try to make this situation easier for us, like Professor Thomas Scanlon, who told his Moral Reasoning 33 class not to study over break. Also, professors and TFs who assign final papers due before winter break can be a big help in reducing the vacation guilt factor. You may resent them in December, but you'll thank them in January.
By today most of us are back to our regular mode of productivity, whatever that may be, and I'm perfectly content with having finals after break. What I dread is the next time I'll have to answer the surprised and aghast remarks of people who end their semesters for good at the end of the year. So, students of other colleges and people of the real world, please hold back your comments on our strange system. By pretending that taking a final for a fall semester class during the last week of January is perfectly normal, you'll be doing me and other Harvard students a very big favor.
Erwin R. Rosinberg '00 is an English concentrator living in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.