Low tech: Behold the lowly, but often-used, blue books


Though a growing number of schools, especially law schools, now give laptop exams, the majority of colleges still rely on the old-fashioned blue book - where students write out answers to essay questions in longhand, organizing their thoughts as best they can before explaining the historical significance of the Battle of Hastings.

Nobody seems to know why blue books are blue, but references to the color date back as early as 1885 at Notre Dame. According to yaledailynews.com, blue books at Smith College are actually yellow, and some colleges rotate a color scheme to avoid sale of a previous semester's exam to a current semester's student.

One of several American blue book manufacturers, Pontiac Paper Company makes 8 or 9 million blue books each year. Its most popular one has 16 pages, though some contain 44 pages. The only real change over the years is that now they're printed on recycled paper.

At Saint Joseph's, professors go through roughly 2,000 blue books each year for mid-terms and finals. Even distance education students take final exams by blue books, using a proctor system. So far, there is no move to switch to laptop exams on campus, but some schools do offer two exam options: traditional blue books and "electronic blue books."

Though laptop exams can now be administered with software that prevents cheating - in effect, locking down your computer - some students say their hard drive froze up during the exam or their battery died - and that it's easier to see someone else's answer on a computer screen. Blue books, on the other hand, are pretty much fail-safe - and cost 8 cents.

Meloney Simpson '09 of Winslow, Maine, says the size of the blue book paper is too small and the lines are too far apart. "It's like grammar school paper," she says. Her classmate Gina Gaetani '09 of Auburn, Maine, says, "If you mess up, it looks sloppy. With a blue book, you can't do a rough draft."

Dan Currier '06 of Standish, Maine, likes blue book exams because "when you start writing, it jogs your memory about what's important."

When communications professor William Yates uses blue books, it's just for the final exam, as a way to symbolize its seriousness as 20 percent of the grade. "They're a rite of passage," he says.

Business professor Anthony Girlando avoids blue books by giving essay exams on computers the Business Lab. He watches from the back of the room to make sure no one looks for answers on the Internet. At the end of the exam, students e-mail their answers to him, presumably in a font far easier to read than student handwriting.

But one has to wonder, is it really so bad to write out answers without logging on? Aren't we already on the computer far too much? Perhaps the familiar soft blue booklets are the last hurrah for pen and paper. After all, a previously unknown poem by playwright Tennessee Williams has been discovered in a blue book that Williams used for his Greek final in 1937. Found in a French Quarter bookstore in New Orleans, it reveals the despair and failure that he felt at age 25, eight years before his success with "The Glass Menagerie."

Would he have bared his soul to a laptop?

by Charmaine Daniels