final exams

That Time of the Semester

I graduated from college twenty-three years ago, but still, at least once a year, I have the Ohmygodohmygodohmygod, I woke up late and am missing my final exam but can’t find the classroom” nightmare.

Considering my lax attitude towards class attendance in my college years, the notion that I can’t find the classroom isn’t necessarily the stuff of dreams. There was actually a reasonable possibility that, even by final exam week, I didn’t know where my classes had been meeting. More likely yet was the scenario where I’d find the classroom and burst through the door breathlessly, only to be met by the professor with a blank stare and the query, “Hello, breathless stranger. Are you lost?”

Just as amazing to me as the endurance of the “I’m missing my final exam” nightmare is this: once I started teaching college classes twenty-two years ago, the student point of view morphed into an instructor’s point of view. The anxiety remains the same.

Thus, I now, roughly once a year, have the “Sweet Moses, I’m missing my final exam” dream as though I’m a student who’s forfeiting her chance to pass the class…AND, I also have a variation of that dream, again roughly once a year, in which I’m the teacher–unable to find her classroom, knowing there’s a crop of nervous students waiting on her arrival. Once or twice, the issue in my teacher nightmares has been that I get near the classroom but realize I have no final exam to distribute. Once, I found the classroom and had a final exam ready to go, but the room was locked, and I spent the first hour of the students’ writing time attempting to track down a facilities guy who might have the key jingling from a ring on his belt loop. This dream ended with me calling out over my shoulder to my students, “Just get out some notebook paper, and start writing! You don’t need computers or desks. And don’t talk to each other while I’m gone.”

Actually, the more I think about it, the more I’m realizing that this last “dream” scenario was reality. It most definitely has happened on many occasions during normal class meetings–this business of me trying to get us into a locked classroom–and sometimes in an iteration where we all get into the classroom, but then students work on the computers during the class period, only to find the printer has no paper. So I spend fifteen minutes trying to find the one person on campus who’s allowed to hand a ream of paper to an instructor. Fortunately, in the last couple of years, it’s become increasingly possible for students to save work online, without the benefit of a flashdrive or disc.

The disc years, though? Cripes, but those were a weird interlude.

You’d think the headaches of both reality and dreams would recede with the advent of online classes. When no one ever looks at each other face on, and everything’s done on the computer and saved to something like a cloud as a matter of course, the final exam should be easy. We never need a facilities guy; we never need paper. It’s even somewhat hard to be “late” or “lost”–although it’s fairly startling how often both can happen in cyberspace.

For me, from the instructor point of view, I’m pretty much able to find the online classroom, so that worry has been neutralized. However, I do sometimes, at the end of the semester, have a momentary gasp during which I panic, “Was I supposed to send out the final exam this week? Did I not?” If the final is a multiple-choice test I’ve created ahead of time, an instrument that can be pre-set to “reveal” and “close” at certain times, I also have a moment of anxiety when I realize I haven’t double checked to be sure it followed my directions.

All in all, I prefer online final exams to on-campus tests, simply because they don’t involve driving, finding a parking space, and being punctual. Not a one of those is a personal strength.

Interestingly, I seem to have discovered a whole new way to turn an online final exam into a nightmare, though. The other day, I emailed out a “take-home” exam question to the Writing for Social Media class. My aim with the test was to have students step back from the practice they’d done during the semester and look at the value of the various types of social media platforms more objectively.

However, by the time I managed to get around to posing the question,

which asks students to craft 650-1200 words in response,

I found I, myself, had typed 1500 words of collateral malarkey:

Final Exam

Writing for Social Media

A time machine is too easy.

This final exam question won’t involve one.

If I gave you a time machine, you know you’d go back twelve weeks and do that blog post you missed and make those comments you got zeroes on and toss out a few more Facebook updates and do your live tweeting session all over again.

No, the power of a time machine is too immense, and I’ll not unleash you on the world with one.

If I gave you a time machine, you’d not only go back and redo some bits of this class, you know you wouldn’t be able to stop yourself from also going back a few million years and riding a triceratops in some sort of prehistoric rodeo fantasy and then flitting forward a few million years and trying to save Lincoln at the theater that night and then catapulting forward another hundred + years and putting yourself in that garage with college-aged Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak so as to get in on the ground floor of Apple’s creation.

I can’t trust you and your murky soul for a minute, and that’s why I’m not giving you a time machine here.

What I am giving you, however, is one of those vacuum-tube systems like they employ in banks when customers in the drive-thru need to send a signed check and a deposit slip to the teller behind the glass fifteen feet away. Wait. Do they not use those anymore? Do we need to take a quick field trip in my personal time machine back to 1990 so I can show y’all that vacuum-tube system? Such systems were also used for inter-office communications back in the era of Mad Men.

MMMMMMMM. Mad Men. Stop with your mysterious, charming self, Don Draper. I’m trying to focus here.

Anyhow, focus.

What I’m trying to tell you is that you get an inter-office communication, drive-thru-at-the-bank kind of vacuum-tube system for this final exam. It also has the unexpected power of, yes, time travel. But only the tube can time travel, and don’t even think you can pack your own adult body into that little tube and take a quick joy ride back to the 1980 Miracle on Ice Olympic hockey match when the U.S. upstarts beat all predictions and trounced the Russians, thus winning the gooooooooooollllllllldddddddd.

Oh, I hear you: you’re mewling, “But Jocelyn, I don’t even like hockey. I’d never abuse time-traveling vacuum-tube technology thusly.”

Yea, but admit it: if you were compactible and double-jointed enough, you’d totally stuff your body into the little tube and whiz back to the Chicago World’s fair in 1893 to try a ride on that huge, spinning wheel invented by Mr. Ferris and then dial it forward a few years to the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 so as to try that new-fangled invention called Ice Cream Cone.

If neither of these things appeals to your sense of whimsical time-traveling vacuum-tube adventure, I think we all can agree we’d attempt a tube stuffing and quick zip back to 1778 if it meant we could talk John Stafford Smith out of including that impossible-to-reach high note when he composed the tune that was eventually used for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” We’d be all, “John, John, John. Have mercy. Despite our time-traveling abilities, we’re all mere mortals here. And that high note you’re considering? Something only dogs can hear. Don’t write a national anthem that only dogs can hear and that every performer, from Roseanne Barr to Carl Lewis, will be forced to suffer public humiliation over for centuries to come.”

The good news is that I’m not only restricting you to a time-traveling vacuum-tube with this assignment, I’m making it a really, really small tube. There’s no earthly way you can get yourself into it.

What you can fit into it—if you fold it up into a teensy little square—is a letter, a single sheet of paper (with very small font, if need be). If you typed 650-1200 words, you’d use just the right amount of paper.

So here’s what I’mma need you to do with your vacuum tub and your letter:

I’mma need you to help out my poor sheltered friend from the past–a Mormon woman living in 1873, and since washing machines and grocery stores haven’t been invented yet, she’s got a lot of work to do just to get through a day. Despite her heavy schedule of manual labor (as 12th wife, she’s both sister-wife to 11 others and co-mother of 48 children), Ann Eliza has unbounded curiosity. What she wants to know more than anything else is what the future is like.

Here’s a note she sent me recently through the time-traveling vacuum tube:

Dear Madam, I wrote you some few weeks since and as I had not received a reply I thought my letter might be miss sent and I would write again. You wrote me some two months ago that you would interest yourself sufficiently to become my agent to procure means of knowledge of times beyond these. I await your next missive and desire heartily some vision of the communications in your age. For me, I pen a missive to my mother every two weeks, telling her in some detail of Hiram’s work and my fellow wives’ unseemly angers. Some time later, I duly receive a reply from dear Mother. Generally, she reckons the weather will be might poor and predicts plagues upon the wheat. What I wonder is how people in your time, when not looking at each other face on, share information. Were I able to stuff my crinolines into our shared vacuum-tube thingjimmie-amabob, I should quite enjoy a hop to the future whereupon I could take stock of how you do your churning and how you cover your absences from each other. In your day, do you write words and, once the ink dries, drip some candle wax onto the envelope as seal? Do you await the hoof beats of the Pony Express rider? When you write, do you discuss the weather and the wheat? I nurse a severe hankering to know how you connect with others in your modern age. Some part of me, I guess, wants to know if I would feel less alone were I alive in your time. What think you?

Do write some kind word to me on the reception of this; it will be gratefully received. We should not neglect to answer each other so long again. I had no time today but sit up an hour later past putting the ten four-year-olds to bed (1869 was a busy year for Hiram here in the compound!) to say to you, that you are kindly remembered.

Accept my best wishes and let me hear from you soon.


Ann Eliza G. Smith

In sum, this final exam is my way of drafting you into replying to Ann Eliza. She wants to know how people in 2012 communicate. What would you tell her? I’ve already got a letter going to her regarding telephones (e.g., voice communication, texting) and email, but I don’t have time to cover some of our other technology-boosted forms of communication. What are the various options people use nowadays to make connections with loved ones and with strangers? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the various options (i.e. “platforms”)? Is she missing out on anything? Would she be less lonely if she were alive now?

Another way to think of these questions would be this: how would you explain various social media options to Ann Eliza, and how would you analyze each option for her? Based on what you’ve learned in your own personal use of social media and what you’ve learned from the activities in this class, what are the strengths and weaknesses of, say, Twitter, Facebook, and blogs? (feel free to bring in other types of SM, like YouTube)

My letter to her is going out tomorrow; I really want to fold up your letter into an itty-bitty bit and jam it into the vacuum tube by Wednesday, December 19th, at 10 p.m. That’s Ann Eliza’s night on duty with the eight twelve-year-olds in the family. She’s going to need something to look forward to at the end of that evening, and I’d like to promise her that your letter will be in the chute, awaiting her weary but excited eyes.

Because I control the vacuum tube (mwahahahahahaha!), I’ll be the one to print and send your letters. I can just visit your blog and print from there, so please be sure they’re in place by the time I swing ‘round on December 19th.

And you know, Ann Eliza will be eternally grateful to have this diversion from the drudgery of boiling Hiram’s undershirts in lye and negotiating truces with her sister-wives. Let her know how we Moderns use technology-based platforms to create entirely different kinds of communities, and let her know in what ways she’s missing out…and in what ways she should be glad to live in the era of traditional letter writing.


Almost immediately after I sent out this “question, ” I got some feedback from members of the class. First, there was:

Seriously- you are hilarious. This is why I love you.

Two days later, another student weighed in with:

Could you please explain the final essay assignment, I am somewhat confused.

Both responses made me grin.

Both responses had merit.

And somewhere between these reactions is the lesson that hides inside all my nightmares over all these years:

a final exam is nonsense; a final exam matters; a final exam is a genuine reflection of something; a final exam is a reflection of nothing; a final exam can be fun; a final exam can be hell.

No matter its true weight in the larger scope of life, a final exam affects us in some way that lingers–hence its permanent imprint in our psyches.

In fact, I’d be willing to dissertate about this at greater length to my students,

but I can’t seem to find them.

Or the classroom.

If you care to share, click a square:



By Jocelyn

There's this game put out by the American Girl company called "300 Wishes"--I really like playing it because then I get to marvel, "Wow, it's like I'm a real live American girl who has 300 wishes, and that doesn't suck, especially compared to being a dead one with none."

11 replies on “That Time of the Semester”

i think i’d be inclined to tell ann eliza about the development of women’s resources center so she could get out of her baby-making, slave-like existence and develop some marketable skills rather than about social media. of course if i were actually your student i’d not want to fail because i completely ignored the assignment so it would be carefully crafted to include online support groups, email addresses of divorce and custody attorneys, and distance learning opportunities. i’d also explain to her the importance of clearing the browser history after use.

I’m with both students–I’d have been that kid reading and re-reading and re-reading the test and then asking you “exactly what do you want me to do here.”
And I’m that grown woman wanting to be in your class because I have a serious crush on you (in a SAHM, MWC kind of way).
My nightmares about teaching generally involved horribly behaved students. They were always worse than my waitressing nightmares–you know, the one where the line wraps around the restaurant and all tables have 7 or more people and you’re out of EVERYTHING.

I finished college when you were (probably) wearing pigtails and breaking Montana broncs, but I still have the occasional late-for-class-forgot-the-assignment-where-are-my-clothes nightmare. Actually, not so much a nightmare as a flashback (except for the missing clothes).

I too would love to be in your class.

Good goddess! The last bit about the significance of final exams – it’s like you live in my head. I’m a college instructor too, and I think it’s the word “final” that does me in. I can’t wrap my brain around this ONE experience supposedly representing anything final in a young person’s life. Argh.

Also, you’re funny.

This makes me both envy and pity your students, and I would have sent both those responses to you.

I had a vivid pre-dissertation defense nightmare where my committee consisted of green-skinned, big-headed aliens and I stood before them covered in the mud I’d had to wade through to get there. Yeah, not too subtle.

A. Love your exam “question.”

2. My college dream involves me missing class (possibly on purpose, I’m not sure), then eventually I just stop going to one or two of my classes altogether though I never officially “drop” them. So then I worry for the rest of the quarter/dream about whether I’ll get an incomplete, or an F, or something worse.

And D. My favorite exams were the ones where I could write pages of, as you say, collateral malarkey, just to satisfy some word-count requirement, then hope the professor just skimmed it, at best.

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