The last English class I ever took was supposed to be fun. It was Victorian literature, and it was the final core English credit I needed to graduate. Victorian literature is an area I like a lot, so I expected it to be an easy last hurrah to the English major before I had to go out into the real world and be an adult.
I hadn’t counted on the healthy dose of senioritis that hit me one week into the semester.
I hadn’t counted on having a professor who was extremely enthusiastic about her subject.
And I hadn’t counted on the heavy class workload that probably would have seemed less taxing if it hadn’t been my last semester—the semester during which, according to collegiate folklore, I wasn’t supposed to have to do a lot of work!
But alas, I was a senior stuck in a class I should have taken semesters earlier. It was my own fault for putting it off. And because I needed the class to graduate, there was nothing I could do.
I made it through the semester, grumbling bitterly, but appreciating, at least, that the subject matter was interesting. There were even a few moments when, in spite of myself, I began to enjoy it. You have to be a total grump (or a Modernist) to not like the Victorians at least a little, and we were reading some fun things I had never heard of before.
And then it came time for finals.
Throughout the semester, we had understood that we would have not one, but two big assignments due around finals time. The details were as follows:
Final One: an annotated version of a lesser-known Victorian text with at least sixty detailed and perfectly-cited annotations to connect the text with Victorian culture. This was cool because we got to go to the library and check out an original Victorian book for the project. This was not cool because we couldn’t leave the library with the 100-plus-year-old book, and it was a time-consuming assignment. The whole project would be due during finals week.
Final Two: a three-hour written exam at the humanities testing center, to be taken during finals week. We would also have to study for Final Two while working on Final One.
It felt like a lot, but again, I (and the rest of the class) had known about it since the first day of the semester. Even if someone wasn’t happy about the two separate “final” assignments, they were still resigned to doing both.
Two weeks before finals, the professor led a discussion about assignment guidelines to clear up any misunderstandings students might have. She was excited about the book project, as she was about most of the assignments she gave us. She was looking forward to reading them.
Most of the class didn’t look as excited about the book projects as she did. The students sitting in the back and on the edges of the classroom were like me: just trying to get through this class so we could have the required credit. We were the students who were sort of paying attention, but mostly trying to plan time to do the mountains of work that stood between us and the semester’s end.
The five or so students who sat in the front and center of the classroom were the exception. They were the Aspiring PhDs, the ones who commented the most frequently in class. They listened attentively to our professor, eyes bright with enthusiasm.
I was doodling on a corner of my notes when one of the Aspiring PhDs in the front row raised her hand. The professor called on her.
“I’m really interested in hearing more about everyone else’s book projects,” said the Aspiring PhD with naïve sincerity. “Could we switch the final exam to be some kind of presentation-based assignment about our projects?”
I stared at the Aspiring PhD in horror. A presentation? That sounded, to me, a lot worse than taking a final. With a final exam, at least, I wouldn’t have to get up in front of the class and pretend I’d done a good job on my project.
The professor’s eyes lit up. “Ooooh,” she said. “That’s a great idea. We could do that in addition to the final!”
There were groans. A few people raised their hands and reiterated the Aspiring PhD’s suggestion that we do the presentation instead of the final exam. No one—not even the other Aspiring PhDs—wanted to do three finals for one class.
But the professor was lost in her brilliant new idea. “We’ll talk about this next week,” was all she said, with a broad smile.
A week later, I walked into class and was greeted by the professor, who shoved a paper into my hand. “Welcome to class, Michela! Here are the guidelines for the new final.”
I read the handout as soon as I sat down and then tried not to descend into a finals-induced panic attack.
The new final included the same book project. It also included the same three-hour final exam. And now, in addition to these two, all students would be required to complete either option A—a presentation about the book project—or option B—a paper about the book project. Presentations and papers would be due during finals week…which started in two days.
All around me, students were emitting noises of distress. I watched one girl almost begin to cry as she read the handout and tearfully asked someone sitting next to her if this was an April Fool’s joke.
When class started, the professor said, “So, before you all lose your heads—”
That was about as far as she got before students began to shout questions.
“How long do the presentations have to be?”
“Do we have to do a paper and a presentation?”
“Can we vote on this?”
“Is there any option that includes not taking three finals?”
The professor looked genuinely surprised that her students were so upset. “I’m being nice!” she exclaimed. “I’m giving you guys the option of doing another paper or a presentation! That way, the people who don’t want to write another paper don’t have to, and the people who don’t want to present don’t have to. And no, we can’t cancel it. I think it’ll be a good learning experience for all of you.”
The room erupted into a cacophony of student dissent. The professor continued to evade protests and act like the class’s reaction was unreasonable.
I wondered about this as I watched the professor neatly parry students’ pleas for no third final. Sure, the paper only needed to be five pages, which is like a sneeze to an English major; and sure, a presentation wouldn’t be that difficult to throw together. But both options would still take time—which, as every college student knows, was always in short supply. What professor assigns an extra final the day before finals week and then is surprised when her class loses it??
Though most of the class was vocally in favor of canceling the third final, the professor was not. Eventually, she ordered everybody to settle down so we could have our reading discussion (half an hour after class had started). The class, defeated, descended into a petulant silence, punctuated only by the Aspiring PhDs’ discussion comments
Finals week was really rough that semester.
In the end, though, I felt bad for that professor. As inconvenient as the three finalswere for us, she’s the one who had to read and watch and grade all those last-minute papers and presentations. And if the others were anything like the paper I turned in, they weren’t at all fun to sit through.