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Finals: An All-Consuming Ritual
December 16, 2010 - 9:15pm

The library is never more packed than during fall final exams. A few students are still approaching the reference desk with the kinds of questions we're used to, only tighter deadlines. ("I need some sources for this paper that's due in, uh ... two hours. Oh, and the teacher said they need to be scholarly.") Most of the questions we get, though, are asking for advice on how to cite something that isn't described in whatever style manual the student is required to use. But mostly they are in the library to hunker down over notes and printouts of PowerPoint slides and textbooks gaudily striped with color-coded markers, stuffing as much information as they can into their short-term memories in the hours before the test. They arrive first thing in the morning, fill all the seats, and stay until the 2:00 a.m. closing bell. I haven't actually seen what it's like at that hour of the morning - it's well past my bedtime - but the amounts of food-related trash that our poor custodians had to haul out this morning was prodigious.

Why is it that consuming huge amounts of food is so much a part of the final exam ritual? I remember platters piled high with pimento cheese sandwiches in my freshman dorm's common room. I didn't actually want to stay up all night studying, having heard rumors that being well rested is useful in test situations, and I didn't like pimento cheese, but having food provided by the student affairs experts in the middle of the night made me think perhaps I ought to be up late, studying and stuffing myself.

I had a moment of insight this morning, looking at the mountain of garbage bags piled up in the loading dock. Final exams are all about binging and purging.

This is not based on personal experience. As a Russian literature major, I actually didn't have the kind of finals that required mastery of information. I do remember getting writer's cramp from filling bluebooks with mostly illegible responses to essay questions, but you couldn't cram for those; you simply had to be able to think on your feet and make clever connections out of whatever stayed with you from the books you'd read for class. I remember having to memorize nominative, genetive, dative, and accusative case endings and being baffled by the incredible number of verbs of motion used for the simple English word "go," but learning a language is cumulative and layered and has to be conquered week by week; a study marathon at the end of the term isn't an option.

I suspect all teachers feel that way about their disciplines, that last-minute cramming isn't an effective way to learn. Yet our schedules and our support systems all seem to say to students "stuff yourselves. Forget about sleep, forget about everything except cramming as much as you can into your brains. And to make sure you get it, we'll provide lots of food as a metaphor for this moment." The reward, of course, is that when you hand in that last exam, when you've poured out as much as you can of everything you spent the past few days shoving into your tired brains, it's over. The very word "final" promises release.

The odd thing is that while students flock to libraries ritualistically to study for finals, what libraries are about isn't learning all the right answers. What libraries can contribute to an undergraduate education, given the chance, is being a place where you learn how to ask good questions, ones too interesting and complex to be simply right or wrong. Ones to linger over like a good meal, not like the fast food that fuels study binges and overflows our trash cans.


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