Angles, free us from Satin's yolk

US scholars respond to UK exam howlers with some egregious examples of their own. John Gill reports

September 9, 2010

From the student who reported that their grandmother was "in heaven with the angles" to another who described waking from a drunken night out "to find myself well hung", academics in the US have responded to Times Higher Education's annual exam howlers competition with some classic cock-ups from across the Atlantic.

A number of submissions focus on the perceived failings of scholars themselves. Richard T. Hull, emeritus professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, recalled asking for student evaluations: "One wrote that I should be given a raise so I could 'buy some new cloths'," he said.

Another lecturer cited a student's scathing observation that "Prof seems to think he knows more than the students", while Vilma Santiago-Irizarry, associate professor in anthropology at Cornell University, described the student who, when challenging a low grade, "wailed to me that she was 'being penalised for not knowing something'".

The examples were posted in response to the recent THE exam howlers competition, which focused on the UK, on the news website www.insidehighered.com.

Other US contributors included the tutor who, when teaching calculus, told his students that using formulae without knowing their basis "is like using a thesaurus without real word knowledge".

"One student asked what a thesaurus was, and another responded that it was an animal in Jurassic Park," the lecturer said.

An academic at the University of Tennessee described a student who wrote a "painfully long" essay on Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic short story Young Goodman Brown (1835). "The paper was an exploration of Brown's relationship with 'Satin', who, unfortunately, was mentioned many times. The paper ended with the caution: 'The scariest thing Satin ever did is convince the world that he doesn't exist.'"

Some academics attributed students' errors to their misplaced trust in computer spellcheckers: "Many of my students now 'defiantly feel' and 'defiantly think' and many take other things 'for granite'," one said.

A lecturer at Bethel College, a Christian liberal-arts institution in Indiana, reported that one of her students had inadvertently raised the question of "whether Jesus lays eggs" when they wrote that He "bears the yolk of our infirmities".

In a similar vein, an academic at the College of William and Mary in Virginia said that when quizzed about Oresteia, Aeschylus' trilogy of Greek tragedies, a student wrote that a speech by Apollo in The Libation Bearers "contained several phallucies".

The THE exam howlers competition was won by the University of Portsmouth academic who reported that a student "wrote about 'anus crimes' all the way through their essay": they meant "heinous crimes".

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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