The principles of Confusionism

Prepare yourselves. Rebecca Attwood reports on students' exam howlers in our annual competition

August 12, 2010

One student has inadvertently invented a new name for the phenomenon: "Confusionism".

In fact, the third-year student had intended to refer to the system of philosophical and ethical teachings founded by the Chinese philosopher Confucius.

Proving that they are just as fallible as all those to have gone before them, students' comical cock-ups have been revealed in entries to Times Higher Education's "exam howlers" competition 2010.

Thank you to Michael Gold, senior lecturer in employment relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, for sending in the Confucianism error.

Many of this year's entries have a medical theme. John Lee, head of undergraduate studies in nursing and midwifery at the University of Dundee, was told that "Vagina Henderson" was one of the first modern nurses of the 20th century (her name, of course, was Virginia).

Along the same lines, Anthony Pinching, interim dean of medicine and associate dean of the Cornwall Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry Knowledge Spa, was informed by a student that HIV was discovered by Galileo (rather than Robert Gallo).

And Mary Williams, senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Portsmouth, enjoyed a feature by a journalism student on "complimentary" medicine.

"I quite liked the idea of picking up a pill and it saying nice things to you to make you feel better," Ms Williams said. She also appreciated a fashion article that described the subject's sense of style as very "sheikh".

Also on a medical theme, a student who was asked to define otitis media - a medical condition known as "glue ear" - informed Liz Morrish, principal lecturer in linguistics at Nottingham Trent University, that it was "a text specially designed for people who are otistic".

Dr Morrish was equally amused to read that Polari (which Dr Morrish described as "a coded version of English spoken by gay men, prior to the decriminalisation of gay male sex" in the UK) was an ancient language of the Inuit.

Elsewhere, an academic at the University of Warwick was given a description of Sara Baartman, the so-called "Hottentot Venus", as a "Hot 'n' Tot", and of the Hindu practice of sati as "when a woman throws herself on her husband's funeral parlour".

In a drama examination, one student explained Adolphe Appia's revolutionary contribution to scenography thus: "He moved projectors on to surfaces and shuddered at moments of climax."

"Great to see he derived such joy from his work," said Philip Crispin, a lecturer at the University of Hull, who submitted the entry.

Today's students have little faith in the next generation, it seems.

"The UK birth rate is currently increasing. We have more than 700,000 new suspects every year," Padmini Ray Murray, lecturer in publishing studies at the University of Stirling, was warned.

But earlier generations were impressively tough. In seeking to explain the origins of the term "nuclear family", the author of a paper marked by Keith Kintrea, deputy head of the department of urban studies at the University of Glasgow, claimed the social unit "could enjure (sic) anything up to and including a nuclear war".

Throughout one essay, a student from the University of Portsmouth wrote about "anus" crimes. The academic marking the paper eventually realised that he meant "heinous" crimes.

Finally, a student sent a winning apology for missing an exam to Lisa Burton, operation and examinations manager at Warwick Business School. The email culminates with the line: "I am sorry if this caused you any incontinence."

The winner of this year's competition will be announced next week.

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