I find myself mourning all the exam papers I poured time and energy into over the years but never got to see, much less keep as proof of my cognitive achievements under pressure. I have never been as focused and fluid as I have been when forced by the exam situation to write just a certain amount and type of material in just a certain amount of time. In one of those paradoxes that Yossarian would recognise, it is possible that I may not have written as well had I known that I would eventually get to reclaim my work, but Yossarian and I both know that we will never get to actually test this possibility.
Why don’t we get to keep our exam papers? I know there are all sorts of reasons, but they still don’t stop me from seeing the particular institution that lays false claim to my tightly woven tapestry of ideas as thieves of the lowest order. Someone who steals jewellery steals only that which money can replace. But I cannot write exactly the same essay twice. I am no naive positivist who lives with the happy false consciousness of objective reality. An exam is a socially constructed situation with so many mutable elements that every piece of work created under its conditions is different. My essays may not be perfect, or even very good; but they are always and forever MINE. Every exam board or university that has taken my creation away from me for grading and then never returned it to me has stolen it from me.
The uninformed reader might assume that I have never tried to request the return of my papers. I have. My friendly and open relationship with one of my professors led me to believe that he would entertain my request to reclaim my intellectual property from the grubby hands of the thieves who didn’t appreciate its value to me. This professor did indeed entertain my request. Or at least he pretended to. Unfortunately, his relationship with his institution was evidently neither as friendly nor as open as mine with him, and his request (if indeed he did make it. I have no way of knowing) was turned down.
I think it’s time this terrible practice of institutional theft was stopped. My papers (however lousy they are) belong to me. To think that I should be satisfied with the reduction of my hours of work to a mere grade is to insult the value I place on those rare moments when I actually manage to articulate my thoughts with some modicum of rhetorical efficacy.
It is a different matter entirely that some of the people grading my exam papers may have been sorely tempted to chuck the entire stack at me in frustration. We all have our issues.