Terrifyingly Final.

I still occasionally get anxiety dreams around finals time. It’s like some kind of holdover from the end of high school and my first couple years of undergraduate work, when I would have a nightmare about missing the final (or possibly WORSE, taking a final in the nude), only to wake up in a cold sweat and realize it was 6am on the morning of the final. On at least one occasion, I woke up, realized it was the morning of the final only to have a series of mishaps which resulted in my missing the final, only to wake up. My subconscious is a bitch.

My point is, that finals were a big deal, nerve-wracking enough to cause nightmares, and possibly stomach upset.

Students arrived at the giant shed that was the Exhibition Building annexe where invigilators in white coats would look sternly at your ID before letting you in to the drafty, sparrow-infested barn. You took your place at your assigned wobbly desk, and began the ritual of wodging enough pieces of cardboard under the legs to prevent it from teetering while you wrote your paper.

English exams had 30 minutes of “reading time” (shitting yourself time, more like), at the beginning of which the English Profs would swan in, looking fabulous, check to see if there were any questions about the exam paper, and swan out again, no doubt to go get shitfaced at the Lemon Tree.

There were rules of conduct at these exams: line up and wait to enter the building, sit where you are told, no talking, no leaving in the first 30 minutes or the last 15, put your hand up if you need assistance because a sparrow shat on your paper.

Exams were serious business, and “final” meant “Final”. Later on in my undergraduate career, exams were replaced by final essays, but they still had the same sense of awesome terminality about them. If the essay wasn’t done by the scheduled due date and time, you had to sit in an assigned final room with an invigilator, and jolly well finish it. No extensions, not even the whisper of a possibility that someone would listen to a story that started, “so, at 2am I finished my essay and then tripped over the power cord when I went to turn on the printer…”

Exams were scary, and you know what? That’s how they should be.

At my institution, most exams are held in regular classrooms, and students feel so cozy they go right on in to the room before the examiner arrives, and get totally comfy, and no doubt stick their cheat notes under the desk, and then they get all butthurt when I turf them out and ask them to wait until I am ready to come into the room.

“Sit where there is a paper” is like some kind of foreign instruction to most of them. They take an exam booklet from the pile of spares, and then are bewildered when I suggest they spread out around the room, rather than sitting right next to their best buddy so the two of them can collaborate on their essays.

They take injunctions about putting electronics away as personal insults. “How dare you suggest I would use my iPhone as anything but a clock?” Okay, I am as old as dirt, and these devices were not available during my exam days, but I really don’t think it would have crossed my mind to argue about it.

Our exams are invigilated by professors, rather than neutral outsiders. No doubt this is cozier and friendlier, and students may feel reassured by having the prof in the room, but you know what? I think exams SHOULD be as scary as fuck.

The result of all this informality and friendliness and casual approach to the exam is that “final” seems more like just a test in a regular class. Without the miasma of terror, the idea that missing a final is the end of the world has entirely disappeared. To many students, missing a final isn’t much worse than missing a regular class.

We have processes to let students make up finals, and I have to admit, I have, in the past, let students who mistook the date, or slept in take make-up finals. I think word gets around. Missing the final: no big deal.

I don’t think I have yet had a student top the guy who waited 6 weeks to say anything about missing the final, but it’s early days yet, of course. I did have emails from 2 guys who missed the final, though, and who were utterly astonished that I actually saw that as a big deal.

Guy #1 emailed me after the final to say that he had missed it “due to circumstances”. Damn you, circumstances! He wanted to sit the final because he suspected that not sitting it might mean that he wouldn’t pass the class. I wrote back to say that yes, he could pay the fee and sit the deferred exam, but that given that he was sitting on 26% for the course, he shouldn’t put too much faith in a final worth 30% to put him over the top into a passing grade.

He was astonished. Astonished, I tell you, that he was doing that badly. He had thought he was doing fine. Given that 3 of the 4 assignments he had handed in for the class were still sitting, graded but uncollected, on my desk, I guessed that his problem was delusional rather than mathematical.

Guy #2 was even better. He emailed me after his final was over with nary a mention of missing it. Why would he mention missing the final? He had missed all but one of the classes for the entire semester, and all of the assignments. He was, however, sure he could make up the work if I would only give him an extension.

When I declined to take him up on this tempting offer, he shot back an email full of accusations of lack of empathy, and bad teaching. How on earth you judge someone’s teaching from one class in which you sit clicking your pen so obnoxiously that I am obliged to take it away, I don’t know. Or perhaps I do. Anyway, my teaching was obviously irrelevant, since he was convinced he could do the work despite, you know, having missed all the classes. If I weren’t such an un-empathetic bitch.

It’s tempting to blame this kind of entitled attitude on Generation Snow, and obviously, flakiness is a factor. But I am willing also to cop some of the blame for this one. Exams are not terrifying enough anymore, and in worrying about student discomfort, we are, perhaps, doing them a disservice. Final should mean final.

10 thoughts on “Terrifyingly Final.

  1. Rhiannon

    Since I teach primarily Intro to English classes, my students always wind writing their exams in the gym, which holds roughly 400 students. It is huge, echoing, and cavernous; the desks all wobble, and after a few days of exams it develops a suspicious kind of funk. Thankfully, the school has proctors (grad students) who come in along with the professors; they get paid to do all the set up and to keep the students out while I get to relax with my knitting and a tea from Tim Hortons.

    I did do something kind of awesome/terrible this year, though: I didn’t really think through my outfit that morning and wore my knee high boots with 3.5″ heels. Every time I had to get up to answer a question it sounded like a scene from a movie about a Nazi prison camp during WWII: thud, thud, thud. All I needed was a club to drag along the legs of the desks.

    (Unfortunately I had a great group of students this year, and felt bad about terrorizing them. I can think of groups in years past, though, that I would’ve had no qualms about frightening.)

  2. V's Herbie

    Yeah I just finished up with the whole grading shtick.

    Now the e-mails are pouring in with ” I got a 55%! Why is that a D-? I thought you were going to cuuuuurve!!!”

    Umm yes. We did curve. That’s why you don’t have an F.

    There’s some gems of exam answers up over at my blog too.

  3. zugenia

    YES. Exactly. I tend to cultivate a “friendly” atmosphere in my classrooms to generate discussion (and I hope that this doesn’t suggest to students that academic standards have been at all relaxed, and put thought into negotiating the two), but I only feel like I can do that if I can expect some level of respect (read “terror”) when it comes to formalities, like deadlines and finals, which so many of them do not have.

    I kept saying to colleagues this year, “When I was in school, I would have been MORTIFIED to [do whatever some student has casually done].” MORTIFIED. I once told an undergraduate class that I was a firm believer in a pedagogy of fear; I’m going to continue developing this alongside a pedagogy of deep, deep shame.

  4. whatladder Post author

    It’s SO hard, because of the expectation that we “enhance the student experience”. I am way more easy-going than I should be, and I am still one of the hardest asses in my department.

  5. tmkr

    AMEN. I scored a minor coup this semester, at least, by saying non-stapled homeworks would receive no more than a check-minus. Received only 2 all semester. I savor the minor victory.

  6. ThirdCat

    That 30 minutes reading time really used to freak me out. I got completely overwhelmed by the idea that I should be putting my thoughts in order and composing brilliant sentences in my head, that I could barely read, let alone think. Even the thought of 30 minutes reading time is making me break out in a cold sweat, even from this 15 year distance.

  7. paperkingdoms

    I’m never sure how much of what my students do is just general student-ness, and how much of it is their deep terror of math. Because small drawings of dinosaurs where optimization problems should be doesn’t get you points (smiles, and possibly a featured space on my LJ, but not points), and having to go to the health center for mysterious reasons after not being able to find me while I was in my office is a dubious excuse for missing the exam.

    But really, they don’t act appropriately terrified even when they’re in the big common classes that take the exams in the cavernous lecture halls. So I don’t know that there’s any hope at all.

  8. ampersand duck

    Now that I’ve got over the absolute joy of seeing your post in my feedreader, I have the familiar sense of ‘WTF??!!’ that I get with nearly all of your posts… At least with an art school the students are familiar with the notion of needing to be in the classroom to learn the subject; I just can’t get over what an uphill and horrible slog your classes (or their aftermath) can be…

  9. Pingback: Arrogant Asshole and the Quest for the Exam « What Ladder?

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