On the second floor of the Hall of Graduate Studies lies an academic graveyard. It holds more than three years of unrecovered seminar papers, more than 1,000 buried blue books, a catacomb of final thoughts outside the History Department office.
There are the unanswered questions for further study, (“Do you think the nature of violence changed from the 1910s onward?”), the unread suggestions for future reference, (“Your essay might have done much more with the Ruiz book”), and the now ironic praise for particularly attentive students (“Jack, it was nice to know that at least one person in section had done the reading and was willing to talk about it”).
And there is also the reality that for a large number of Yale students, the last word on their final exams is a single letter, an A or a B most likely, and nothing more.
Some say Yalies aren’t picking up their end-of-semester work because they only care about grades. Others say it’s because professors drop neatly rubber-banded blue books off at the beginning of the new semester, when most people have long forgotten the old one, and don’t tell anyone where to find them.
Still others say the tidy stacks of Pontiac Paper Co. Examination Books show a crisis of feedback, a lack of communication between teachers and students on written coursework.
On page 51 of “Becoming Teachers,” Yale University’s graduate student teaching handbook, the aspiring teaching assistant is told that all graded work should be given directly to a student. “Don’t leave stacks of blue books,” it warns, “lying around for anyone to peruse.”
But they are there in the dimly lit hallyway, booklets and papers folded into each other for retrieval, for perusal or to be forgotten and destroyed every two years or so by History Department senior administrative assistant Essie Lucky-Barros.
There is the exam Aaron Feigenbaum ’04 wrote last spring for Carlos Eire’s “History 215b: the History of the Protestant Reformation.” He said he never picked it up because he wasn’t “sufficiently interested to go to the trouble of getting it back.”
On the typed grading sheet, his TA handwrote in green ink more than six months ago “best wishes on your continual academic success and future endeavors.”
There is Martha Kashickey’s ’04 final paper for “Sociology 130a: Social Problems” about unequal access for different ethnic groups to New Jersey public schools, which she said she spent nine hours writing. Her TA gave it an A+ and called it “Exemplary!” and Kashickey had no idea.
And there is the student whose TA suggested three years ago that she think about the changing nature of violence from the 1910s onward. She never picked up the paper, nor did she think about the violence, she said, faulting her instructor for never having told his students where to find their exams.
Her exam, along with countless others, helps make up an overlooked wasteland stuffed under graduate student mailboxes.
Separated and unidentified exam booklets make exact tallies difficult, but among the leftovers in HGS are roughly 215 of 308 total exams taken May 3, 2001, for Mary Habeck’s History 121b. There are 58 from Stuart Schwartz’s May 7 exam in Brazilian history and 58 from his Dec. 17 final in colonial Latin American history. There are 75 from Jon Butler’s “Religion in Modern America” final last spring.
Butler, the chairman of the History Department, estimated faculty spend half an hour grading each final exam and said he thinks most are aware that relatively few students collect their finals.
“In my experience,” he said, “most of us comment fairly extensively on final exams nonetheless because it’s what’s intellectually required and is part of the grading process.”
Other professors, though, are less understanding of the yellowing essays outside their department office.
English and American studies professor Wai Chee Dimock called it a “terrible waste.” History professor Lori Rotskoff said she was astounded upon hearing that more than half of the papers from a history seminar she taught last fall still sit unclaimed, collecting dust in inter-departmental mail folders.
“Unless Yale students are all actors and actresses and they’re pretending to care,” she said, “I really feel that the vast majority really are interested in the subject, especially since it was a junior seminar in their major.”
Rotskoff wrote between two and three pages of comments for each paper and put pink Post-It notes with students’ names on each envelope to protect their privacy. She said she will use a new system to return term papers to her students next year.
English professor and fighter of grade fixation Leslie Brisman said he remembers the same stacks, but with older outdated exams, 30 years ago when he was first starting at Yale. He said that he doesn’t put grades on papers now because “students cannot read comments on a paper that has a grade” and that he asks his students twice a semester to provide him with self-addressed, stamped envelopes so he can send their finals back to them.
“I think there is a serious part of the educational experience which is being neglected in the failure to return or the failure to pick up work,” he said.
And then there are those like Earle Havens GRD ’02, a former Yale history TA, who don’t see a need to change the status quo.
“I graded papers because it was my job,” he said. On whether he thought about students’ never reading his comments, he added, “I was rather indifferent about it.”
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