In the Bunker

Scenes from Exam Period

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.