Following the toil of reading week, Yalies spew up a semester’s worth of knowledge onto the small, lined pages of Pontiac Paper Co. examination books — better known as blue books. Students then pack up and head out of town for winter vacation, leaving their blue books and pending grades in the hands of their teaching assistants.
But as the first official week of second-semester classes began, a slew of blue books for professor Paul Bracken’s popular lecture, “Strategy, Technology and War,” remained uncollected. 315 students were enrolled in the class last semester; and, on Monday, a stack of 253 blue books were still piled inside the Political Science Department at 8 Prospect Place. (Several teaching assistants have not even brought their students’ blue books to the office yet, the receptionist Beth Lauer said)
Although it might seem that grade-conscious Elis would care about the fruits of their hard work, students and TAs alike said Yalies are generally indifferent to the final destination of their blue books, leaving most behind as they embark on a new semester.
But these blue books are not trashed, used as heating fuel or recycled. Rather, blue books head to a catacomb for examination material, tucked in a file cabinet of the respective professor or academic department and remain there for at least a semester before they are shredded.
Elizabeth Boyce, assistant instructor for Vincent Scully’s fall lecture course, “Introduction to the History of Art,” explained that blue books are in the care of TAs until they return for spring semester, when University grades are due on the first working day of the new year. After grades are submitted, blue books are sealed in individual manila envelopes and filed in the History of Art department.
“It’s a very careful process,” Boyce said. “It’s about the students’ privacy.”
Jed Holtzman FES ’09, one of four TAs for Sheila Olmstead’s “Microeconomics with Environmental Applications,” said he and his fellow TAs went to similar lengths to ensure the students’ work was preserved, working countless hours prior to break to grade and collate blue books according to students’ net IDs.
“It was horrific, an extremely unpleasant experience,” he said.
Holtzman also noted how he had zero requests from 18 students in his section regarding the retrieval of their exam material, and the other TAs from Econ 117 had received few requests, if any.
Six students interviewed said they saw the retrieval of blue books as a hassle once grades are already recorded.
“I never pick up my blue books,” Andrew Hakanson ’11 said. “I think it’s unnecessary unless I have a problem with my grade.”
COMMENTS FOR A LOST CAUSE?
But while few students see the blue books from their final exams, many TAs claimed they exercise just as much vigilance and fairness in grading as they would with any other exam during the semester.
Boyce said the TAs in Scully’s course, in particular, view their grading as an exercise in being an “effective teacher” by “pining over the students’ material.”
Grading does require a TA’s time and effort during the winter holiday, and the tedious process can cause some TAs to question the value of writing comments in the margins when few students care to examine their blue books.
“Two-thirds of the way through grading, I realized probably 98 percent of kids would never come pick them up and I felt like a dumbass,” Holtzman said.
Despite these frustrations, the general consensus among TAs was that the current method of grading is the most effective and secure system for ensuring academic integrity. While some schools like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are experimenting with computer software to replace handwritten exams, Yale’s affinity for the blue book seems to be a lasting one, though it is not without its imperfections.
“I was shocked and appalled by the handwriting of a significant fraction of the undergrad population,” Holtzman commented. “They write like 6-year-olds.”
Yale College Dean Mary Miller said the blue book system could receive more attention by the Yale College Teaching & Learning Committee. She said she hopes the committee will address the question of abandoned books in the near future, although it “may not be possible to get it on their agenda this year.”
Boyce said she encourages students to retrieve their blue books from their final resting place. The department will even mail blue books to students with extenuating circumstances, like studying abroad, she said.
Though memories of last semester’s hard work may have long faded, the blue books are still alive and, well, waiting.