Yin and Yang by
(58 Stories)

Prompted By Exams

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Freshman year spring term.  As Dickens opened A Tale of Two Cities, the best of times and the worst of times.  The best because academic diligence took a holiday and I rather enjoyed myself.  The worst because, well, academic diligence took a holiday.  Another Harvard “Hum” course, this one Hum 75, German culture.  All readings and all lectures auf Deutch.  I think I did most of the spring reading but lecture attendance?  Not so much.  As the class assembled for the final exam I noticed that everyone else carried a book.  Upon closer inspection I realized they were German-English dictionaries.  Uh oh.  The reason for their sanctioned use soon became clear: half of the exam consisted of a series of excerpts, each by a different author whose work we had read that semester.  But the excerpts were from works other than the assigned reading.  Students were supposed to analyze these unseen pieces and deduce, from the style, who the author was.  The professor apparently felt that the task was tough enough without the additional obstacle of deciphering possibly unfamiliar language.  Fortunately, as my classmates will attest, one of the cogent skills we learned was the ability to hold forth at any time, at any place and upon any subject.  With or without the facts. Thankfully it worked just as well without facts in German as it does in English.

Fast forward to law school: Constitutional Law.   The course materials consisted of a typical casebook plus a paperbound study guide, actually quite useful, that included sample questions to test one’s understanding of the material, along with an answer key and further explanation of each correct answer.  The course requirement was a paper plus the final exam.  The professor, who was more than a little full of himself, decreed that the only fair examination was one with generous time limits and an “open book” format.  The test was scheduled for a Saturday to permit students up to six hours to complete the exam.  Unlike my Hum 75 book-less experience I decided to utilize all permitted materials and brought both the casebook and the study guide.  When the exam commenced I quickly realized two things: (a) the questions were all multiple choice (and there were many); and (b) the questions looked awfully familiar, as if they had come from something I had looked over recently.  Like the study guide.  And they were.  I would like to say that I did the honorable thing and refrained from checking my exam responses agains the study guide in my hands.  Yeah.  I would like to say that. . . .

Profile photo of Tom Steenburg Tom Steenburg
Retired attorney and investment management executive. I believe in life, liberty with accountability and the relentless pursuit of whimsy.

Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written


  1. Suzy says:

    This is a wonderful story! Your command of German must have been quite good, notwithstanding your comment about holding forth on any subject – otherwise your Hum 75 experience might have ended up like the Nat Sci 5 disaster I describe in my story. And I love the law school prof who was so full of himself that he couldn’t be bothered with essay questions even though he gave you 6 hours.

    Welcome to Retrospect, it’s great to have you here!

  2. John Shutkin says:

    Welcome to Retrospect! Knowing your successes in life, I assume you conquered all exam challenges — both large (Hum 75) and small (law school). And a perfect title to capture the dichotomy. As to the latter, it reminds me of one chemistry test in high school where our less than brilliant teacher asked the one and only question about the Haber Process I could answer: who invented it? (Hint: It wasn’t Grant.)

    Looking forward to many more stories!

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    As someone who always attended lectures married to a classmate who skipped many and borrowed my notes, I totally related to your experience in Hum75. My future husband did pretty well on the final exam without suffering though early morning lectures, although I did a bit better. But hardly worth it as the class was mundane. I love your law school story as well, especially the last sentence. Great sense of humor. So glad you have joined the Retrospect community!

  4. Marian says:

    Fun experiences in retrospect (welcome!). Yikes, identifying passages from German-language authors … The only analogy I can think of is looking at slides in art history and trying to identify the artists based on their other works.

  5. Thanks for the memories and the chuckles.

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    I love that you could “hold forth” on any topic, even in German! Well done, though that exam sounds brutal. Quite the opposite (as your title aptly infers) to your law school exam. The prof there seems too lazy to even try, but at least you were honest about it and learned the material. Thanks for sharing your experiences and enriching this site. Welcome!

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