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Way Back at Mac: the history of finals week

An excerpt of a 1944 issue of The Mac Weekly during finals week. Photo courtesy of Macalester archives.
An excerpt of a 1944 issue of The Mac Weekly during finals week. Photo courtesy of Macalester archives.
It is a make-it or break-it for your final grade, a main course in a feast of anxiety. “It is the time of victory or failure; it is the end of a long journey,” as a 1956 Mac Weekly article stated. And what is this mysterious menace? Why finals time of course!

Finals are finals are finals, I suppose. Student opinion of them has changed little in the last few decades, as would be expected. The picture used for this article appeared in the January 14, 1944 edition of TMW with the headline “Profs will torture her,” and the caption ran as follows: “A little bird told somebody that the faculty is planning torture week after next with the instrument of final exams. Dorothy Merriman, medical tech senior from Duluth, is pictured here arming herself with the necessary instruments to fight back. A little bird also told somebody that the faculty thinks the wise student will hit the books from here on in.” Sounds like students of the ’40s were fighting the same battle we are now.

TMW interviewed students before first semester finals in 1956 only to find lot of negative vibes storming campus. Senior John Monroe lamented, “Finals remind me of two things, what lousy grades I got and how much more the professor knew than I did.” Waldo Landquist, sophomore, reiterated Monroe’s somber remarks: “I usually sleep seven hours a night, and at finals time suddenly there are no nights in which to sleep.” Not all Scots were negative then though, as I’m sure not all are now. Junior Charlene Johnson reported, “I like to take final tests, I enjoy studying for them. I like reviewing and rememorizing.” Cool, Charlene. That goes for one of us.

In 1955, a student even wrote a letter to the editor extrapolating on the general uselessness of final exams. The student explained that those who had earned a D or an F on all the previous exams in a class had just had a tough day. These students would obviously have a good day on exam day, so no need for them to take the final. Those with a score above a D, the writer reasoned, evidently know enough to pass the class. The budding philosopher finished his letter,“why not forget the whole thing and all go over to the coffee shop and tarry together.” Sounds logical to me.

Though opinions on final exams haven’t fluctuated much, some aspects of finals have changed. For much of the 20th Century, first semester lasted until mid-January. Students came back from break around January 5 and then took finals starting on January 15. Second semester then began just before February.

Thankful for seniors capstones? Perhaps not, but the previous version of the senior final was arguably worse. Seniors took four-hour exams called senior comprehensives in their chosen major. A comprehensive counted as six credits for June and August graduates, and three credits for January grads. I don’t know about you, but a four-hour exam counting for three to six credits in and of itself is not up my alley.

Unfortunately, finals season is upon us, so unless you feel confident in talking your professor out of giving a final, maybe just be grateful that exams are two hours-long and not four!

December 9, 2016

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