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The morality of midterms

| Wednesday, March 18, 2015

With the passing of Father Hesburgh, this past midterms week left many students (myself included) physically and emotionally exhausted. Whether we were waiting in line at 2 a.m. for Fr. Ted’s visitation, shivering outside the Basilica while waiting for the funeral procession to begin or studying for three midterms and two quizzes, we were all ready for a week of well-earned rest.

Some iteration of “My exams should have been canceled!” had no doubt entered most students’ conversations as we all tried to reconcile attending the events for Fr. Ted with our already grueling midterms study schedules. Indeed, many classes and exams were canceled on Wednesday afternoon so students could attend or watch the funeral and subsequent procession. While it could be argued that the administration shouldn’t ever override the right of a professor to hold an exam, I think most loyal Domers would agree that Wednesday was an appropriate exception.

But what about the exams on Tuesday, the day of Fr. Ted’s visitation, or Thursday, the morning after the memorial service, or even on Wednesday morning, the day of the funeral itself? Should the administration have given more time off for students seeking to grieve and celebrate the life of a beloved University president? The short answer is no. The administration needs to respect the independence of professors to hold classes and exams when they feel it is appropriate. The whole point of tenure is to allow professors to teach when and how they choose without fear of being controlled by the administration. Therefore, a minimalist class cancelation policy is in the best interest of the University.

However, the cancelation of the week’s other exams was, as always, left up to the discretion of the professors. While it’s true that some professors actually did exercise this right and moved exams to later dates, most of us were not so lucky. This brings me to the question that I haven’t quite been able to answer: When should professors cancel exams?

If the goal of a professor is to successfully examine what students have learned up to this point by giving a test, then they should want to administer exams at a time when there aren’t factors like emotional and physical fatigue at play. I understand that professors cannot control when exogenous events like a death or another test create stressful conditions for students and that making exceptions on the emotional claims of students is a slippery slope that should probably be avoided. However, if it is within a professor’s best interest to test students in conditions that don’t force them to compromise their physical wellbeing, then they should still make every attempt to create fair testing environments for students.

This begins with actually scheduling exams across the semester (which many departments claim to do despite the fact that so many of us still have three or more exams on midterms week) rather than on the week before spring break. Furthermore, when extremely rare events like Fr. Ted’s death create conflicts for so many students, professors should recognize that these students are not going to be able to devote the amount of time that they had previously allotted to studying for their exam and professors will be forced to examine the students’ knowledge in poor conditions.

Professors, if you aren’t willing to move tests to improve the conditions in which the majority of students take them, then why bother testing us at all? At best, you’re testing our ability to pull all-nighters three nights in a row and still manage to write coherent sentences, not our actual knowledge of the course material. Whether or not you think Fr. Ted’s passing is an appropriate reason to move an exam, it highlighted the inherent problems with midterms week by exacerbating the students’ poor testing conditions. If it is the duty of professors to create fair testing environments for their students, then why is midterms week still even a thing?

Many students left campus that weekend proudly proclaiming that they survived midterms week. But when survival is an accomplishment, what does that say about the environment created by our University? I don’t want to remember the week of Fr. Ted’s death as being unnecessarily stressful, but unfortunately, I think many of us will.

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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