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In the Bunker

Scenes from Exam Period

By Nicholas Lemann and Richard Turner

Exam Anecdote

A student is taking an exam. Detailed footnotes are required for the essay and he panics. He proceeds to make them up, a host of bogus references. After the exam, seized by a fit of Raskolnikov-like paranoia that the teacher will check up and expose his crime, he types up index cards in the Dewey Decimal system, one for each reference, and slips them into the Widener catalogue.

A Bad Experience

It's the night before the Math 1a exam for a freshman who's living in the Yard and scared. He's sitting in his room, which is neat but somehow oppressive as well, and talking about it.

He was in a self-paced section, see, and he let himself get a little behind during the term. But he realized that he was in a fix, so he got all his other work out of the way in order to concentrate during vacation and reading period on the math. Well, vacation sort of slipped away, and he wasn't too interested in math anyway, but when he got back to Harvard he was ready to get to work.

The first day back, he opened his math book and started to study. After a few minutes, he got tired and lay down. He woke up 12 hours later.

It was like that for two weeks. He was sleeping 18 hours a day. Every time he woke up, he started to study his math. Every time he studied his math, he fell back asleep. He figured something was wrong and went to UHS for mono tests.

After a while, he decided to switch and study for his Philosophy exam, and all of a sudden he found he could study 14 hours straight, without getting tired at all. It was amazing. He wrote his math section man asking for an excuse from the exam, but the section man said you had to have a UHS excuse and the freshman knew he had no specific disease, so there was nothing he could do.

"I don't know if this was caused by Harvard or by an attitude I had before," he says. "I was expecting certain things from school. When I saw what it was like, it resulted in my trying to isolate myself in every way possible. I find this a continuation of games. Everything is transitory."


At Cahaly's several iteams are selling faster during reading and exam period: junk food, cigarettes, and anything with caffeine in it. The store has sold out its supply of No-Doz twice in the past week.


Despite the heavy traffic in No-Doz and coffee, a dealer in headier stay-up drugs claims that the demand for speed seems to have dropped this year. (Although marijuana use is steady: "There will always be people who want a quality high.") According to the dealer, the dropoff in speed consumption is noticeable both at Harvard and Radcliffe. "People want one or two hits to write a paper, but no one's buying in quantity."

Bagging It

People line up at UHS every morning of exams all plagued with various ailments. Lots of people have theories on how to make yourself sick enough to get out of a final: eat a lot of aspirin and drink a Coke; eat spoiled mayonnaise; polish off a quart of Charles River water; swallow chunks of chewing tobacco; say you're hearing voices (how can they tell?). One guy had his roomate smash his finger with a hammer. "It seemed like a good idea at the time," he says.


The truth is, if you want to get out of an exam, you can. "Clearly," one administrator says, "it's very easy to get a makeup exam around here. If you're tired, extremely fatigued, backache, sore throat, or any number of aches and pains, you just go to UHS, stand in line, and say you can't function. My understanding is it's like rolling off a log. The only reason more people don't do it is that you have to pay the piper with a makeup exam later on." Most people who bag exams are good students, people who can't stand the thought of a blemish on their average.

If students come to the administrator in a panic before an exam, he tels them to get a good night's sleep. If they come to him in a panic after an exam, he tells them to go to the instructor and beg for mercy, in which case the instructor wil sometimes relent and give an impromptu oral exam for partical credit.

A senior tutor says there's "a lot of illness this time of year--maybe some of it's psychosomatic, but there's flu going around too." She says lots of desperate students come to her office--"But we can't erase things. We can just deal with the realities of situations. Students have 32 half-courses, and failing one won't affect the course of their lives." Still, she says, there are ways out that always work. You can always get gastroenteritis.

Final Finals

At least one Harvard final club has an important file in its club library, faithfully maintained by the club librarian for generations. In the file listed under departments such as "History" and "English," are old term papers for student use. Nearby stacks of Cliffe's and Monarch Notes are stacked up, along with condensed versions of popular plays, etc-the kind with comments in the margins. Unfortunately, says a source within the club, the file has been neglected in the past few years. "Most of the papers are pretty shitty, and most of them are from the 1930's anyway. There's not that much interest in them anymore." Still, certain papers have seen good use. One paper handed in for an infamous gut a few years ago came back from the professor with the comment, "This paper was an A minus the first time I read it, and it's an A minus now."

The Aftermath

At five o'clock Monday afternoon it is foggy out and just getting toward dusk, and Memorial Hall looms big and threatening out of the gathering night. Larry White '77 is just walking out, having finished his exam in History 1690, "American Intellectual History," a little early. He has an exam Tuesday morning, an exam Tuesday afternoon, and an exam Wednesday morning. He says he's probably never been so harrassed and pressured in his life. "It'll be nice to have them done with," he says.

Close behind him, in the vestibule by the water cooler, a guy in a western that hat and his friend light a joint as they leave the exam. The hat-man continues to smoke it in the hall by the Civil War Dead plaques, waiting for something. He looks like a good old boy, tall and bearded and tough-looking. Someone asks him what exam he has just gotten out of. He sneers, "Ah, uh...I don't know, there's a whole bunch of 'em in there," and turns around, toking.

Exam Central

Up in the Registrar's Office in Holyoke Center, there's a room called Classrooms and Examinations that's an informal command headquarters for exam period administrative crises. The office is run by Jay Halfond, who is young and looks a little like the actor Richard Dreyfuss. This is the time of year, Halfond says, "that I'm crankier than usual."

Exam period does keep him busy. The phone calls stack up and the procession of problems is endless. Late one afternoon he's on the phone, steady, for an hour, motioning with his free hand while he talks: "Yeah, 20 people missed that one. Yeah, it really does meet at that hour. Yeah, we have to give you a Bio exam at that time, so a proctor will pick you up and escort you there..." He keeps at his fingers a "special case book," a bluebook filled with the names of students who have somehow gotten out of the strict and orderly progression of exam period.

Halfond tries to help people like that, the special cases. On this, "our heaviest day--group five," there are missing bluebooks and sickness in exams. "When there's are missing bluebook we asume somebody just walked off with it," he says. "Sometimes we even go to their room and try to get it--the sooner we can get it, the better it is for the student."

There is a cadre of 60 to 70 proctors--graduate or professional students working for $2.50 to $3 an hour--that Halfond commands nowadays. He gives them an intruction sheet and a few directions at the start of the exam period. If they see students cheating, proctors are supposed to wait until the exam is over to confront them. If a student falls ill during an exam, a proctor is supposed to escort him to the Health Services, wait for a physician's verdict, and call it in to the Registrar's Office. If the student is genuinely sick, he is kept incommunicado in Stillman Infirmary, and allowed to complete his three hours of exam time when he recovers.

The Great All-Nighter

Bill Reichert '76 was taking a Public Policy course with a brutal take-home exam. He had not done enough reading for it, he says, but one gets the feeling that he may have overreacted. He woke up Monday morning, picked up the exam, and did not sleep until Friday, when it was due. Well, he did sleep a little--catnaps--but never for more than two hours, and very infrequently. "What would happen was that I'd be up for the dawn, then I'd take a shower, and before breakfast I might snooze for an hour of two; or I'd go to the library and maybe I'd drop off there." But he'd never sleep for more than this. "I was afraid that if I fell asleep I'd fail the course--so it was fear that kept me up. It was amazing--I had a whole different perspective on the world. My eyes were always out of focus, like I could only see out of one eye most of the time, and I was giddy. I tended to giggle a lot." Ten cups of coffee a day, plus bottles of Pepsi and Dr. Pepper, plus late-night pinball ("to give me a semblance of contact with the real world--It was a diversion of nervous energy"), plus long dinners ("Dinners were a great joy to me because I could actually talk to human beings.").

His roommate was no help. Reichert says his roommate, whom he calls an "asshole," told him that he, too, was going to stay up all night." So every night at three or four he'd cop out and go to sleep." Still, the roommate was able to write a 60-page paper in that one week. "He was probably smart to do it that way. I ended up walking around zombie-like." In the final analysis, Reichert was able to stay awake because of nervous energy the source of which, as he said, was The Fear. "You know, this is a course that was really important to me--it's the field I'm interested in pursuing after I graduate."

Smoking Break

At 3:45 Monday afternoon, all four Science Center lecture halls--A,B,C and D--are full. It is smoking-break time, but today each hall spews out no more than a handful of students. Most light up madly, but a couple of non-smokers stand dazed, scratching themselves and stretching and muttering obscene phrases to their friends. Two sit on a concrete bench, with a spread of coffee cups and a thermos laid out between them. It looks like a picnic. One quickly points out that the final examination for Church History 103 is nothing of the kind: the reading list is "bottomless," 2500 pages worth, and it didn't help that they had the questions in advance. "Shit," says another, "I'm going back in and keep bombing it." He vanishes through the orange doors and descends into the exam. The picnickers remain, saying that the thermos is a new idea; but neither has ever missed a smoking break. "Usually I smoke during exams," which seems curious until he reveals that he is a BU student, cross-registered because Caroline Bynum, the professor, is "the best." He does find, however, that at Harvard the exam atmosphere is "more intense, more panic-stricken," than at his university. At Harvard exams are "too academic." At BU he begins to implore, "they ask existential questions, you know, your personal understanding of God, that you can relate to a parish, or wherever you're going to end up." He grabs his thermos and he is gone.


It's Monday, and Alan Brinkley is midway through grading a stack of 75 exams from History 1653, "The Civil War and Reconstruction." The exam was given Friday afternoon, and Brinkley has to have a list of grades to David Donald, the course's professor, by Wednesday. He also has to get through a stack of tutorial papers. Grades for them are due Thursday.

"This is absolutely the worst and most dreary time in a graduate student's life," says Brinkley, who's in his third year of grad school and his second year of grading. "I can't imagine anything more dull. It's all the same essays, written from all the same material--pretty similar, you know?"

There are a couple of ways in which grading 75 finals is even worse than it seems. Although each exam, by itself, takes about half an hour to grade, it's not as if you can keep grading two exams an hour all day. "I can only do about an hour at a time, without things starting to blur," Brinkley says. "The time is not only time you spend grading, but the time you spend resting."

More than that, though, there's the uncomfortable feeling of holding 75 anonymous students' fates in your hands. "For big courses [History 1653 is by far the biggest History course this year], there's a lot of pressure," Brinkley says. "It's very unpleasant to think of the effect you're having on a person's record."

People call Brinkley now and then to plead for mercy on a botched exam. Perhaps half the exams he gets are "almost illegible," and this year, for the first time, he thinks he will have to call a student in to read his exam out loud. He grades finals less harshly than hourlies, because they're so important. He complains of how big a proportion of the grading at Harvard is done by grad students.


The final clubs have been eerily quiet on weekdays lately. "I was the only person in there today," said one clubbie. "But on Saturday nights everybody shows up and goes Borneo."

Sleeping Late

It used to be, until three years ago, that there was an elaborate system for calling students who were in danger of sleeping through their exams. There were special phone banks set up in exam rooms, and if a student was absent at the start of his exam a call would go out to someone in his House office, who would in turn call the student. The system was expensive, one of the little luxuries of life at Harvard, and it only affected three or four people every exam period. When the recession came, the wake-up network went.

Exam Anecdote

A student walked into the Nat Sci 27 exam three years ago and picked up two blue books. He was well prepared for the exam, and sat down and put his name on both books. He wrote the exam, filling one book, finishing just on the last page. He got up, walked to the front of the room, handed in the empty exam book, and threw the full one into the wastebasket.

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