Laughing at students’ mistakes

I have an opinion piece in today’s Times Higher Education: a complaint about their ‘exam howlers’ competition, an annual compilation of silly things students write in exams.

I do understand a desire to laugh at these mistakes, and to share them with colleagues, but I still think it’s an unreasonable thing to do. If we’re going to ask students to do something as weird as sit an exam, I don’t think we should make fun of them when they inevitably slip up. Sharing these mistakes in public feels especially nasty, but really I don’t think we should do it at all. I do sympathise with the ‘for’ argument published alongside my piece by Times Higher. However, I also believe that if you need to laugh at students in order to get through your working day, you are in the wrong job. I mean that in all seriousness.

For me, the issue is partly personal. I’m dyslexic, and especially prone to these sorts of mistakes (and this is not just a matter of spelling mistakes, what dyslexia is let alone how it manifests itself in an exam is not straightforward, and if lecturers think they know how to filter out dyslexics’ slips so they don’t laugh at the afflicted, they’re kidding themselves).

To quote the longer piece:

Exams are a bit of a weird situation, especially today when most students are used to computers. I still think exams are useful, but we have to expect imperfections. University is a space where students can and should make mistakes. That doesn’t mean we should be lenient; just professional about the slips that inevitably turn up […] That stupidity you’re laughing at? Well, it was the job of you and your colleagues this year to help these students get over that. Who failed, exactly? […] Mrs Malaprop, Dogberry, Reverend Spooner, George W. Bush and other cultural icons of varying degrees of fictionality: they are all funny, at least partly, because of the odd mixed-up view of the world their slips throw out. Still, worrying that I might be laughed at for apparent stupidity has a chilling effect that makes me even clumsier in my articulation. I don’t want that passed on to any student.

I do also have an academic interest in the topic. The role of humour in education is something I’ve thought about a lot, as the jokes used in the Horrible Science series form a chapter of my PhD. I touched on this work in a post for the Guardian Science blog festival last year (see this post); asking people who use comedy in science to think about the ways in which the processes of making, sharing and accepting jokes can be divisive as well as a chance to laugh amongst friends. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t crack jokes, but you should think about their context.

Although I wouldn’t take an ‘anti-humour’ approach, I think it’s important to challenge the idea that anything goes as long as it’s framed as a joke, and consider who exactly we place as the butts of our jokes, and why. Humour is by it’s nature fun, but it can also hurt. It is a political act reflecting a cultural location of the joker and their audience; the background and implication of humour is something we should at least be self-aware of.

If anyone’s interested in reading up on the sociology of humour, I found these useful as a way into studying the topic:

  • Billig, Michael (2005) Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Humour (London: Sage). This can be an intellectually and even emotionally challenging read as Billig puts forward a deliberate poe-faced ‘anti-humour’ approach. Personally I take it as a challenge to stop and think before you succumb to the social pressure of “but you’ve got to laugh, eh, you got to laugh…”, and found it to be a thought provoking thesis, but I know some people found it a bit too grumpy.
  • Davies, Christie (1998) Jokes and their Relation to Society (Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter). Another book with some thought provoking points, especially the section discussing jokes about ‘stupid people’. As Billig has noted (and I agree) Davies is too dismissive of the racism at work here, but I do think there are some interesting bits in this book, especially in terms of jokes in around education and science.
  • Kuipers, Giselind (2006) Good Humor, Bad Taste: A Sociology of the Joke (Berlin & New York, Mouton de Gruyter). More empirically based than the last two suggestions and, in my view, catches the right tone of critical but understanding of the social role of jokes. Perhaps slightly less intellectually provocative than Billig, but probably more intellectually sustaining.
  • Mulkay, Michael (1988) On Humour: its Nature and its Place in Modern Society (Cambridge: Polity). In many ways, this is a lovely book even if for my personal taste it isn’t quite as critical as it could be. It has an especially useful focus on the positive role surreal humour may play in finding new ways of thinking about the world. Read it in conjunction with Billig and make up your own mind about humour’s various powers for social good and bad.
  • Palmer, Jerry (1994) Taking Humour Seriously (London: Routledge). A really neat overview of humour studies. Analytical and thorough. Again, it’s not as provocative as Billig’s thesis, but serves as a great introduction to the subject.

4 thoughts on “Laughing at students’ mistakes

  1. Andrew Maynard

    Thanks for this Alice. I must confess to finding a lot of “exam howlers” and anecdotes about “thinks students say” funny – but I guess that this is part of the issue: where do we draw the line between what is personally enjoyable and socially responsible? Just because something is amusing doesn’t – by any stretch of the imagination – make it right.

    I also suspect that there is an important distinction between exchanging information within a small group and more publicly.

    Of course, in research and many areas of professional practice, the rules for sharing privileged information publicly are pretty restrictive – and for very good reason. Should these rules apply to exams? I think they probably should. And do some pieces of information transcend the rules just because they make you laugh? Hard to justify on ethical grounds.

    Reply
  2. Jim

    Er, as long as you are anonymising the mistakes, I really don’t see the harm – it’s not like you’re trying to humiliate an individual. Observing that jokes reflect societal assumptions, and have political implications, is obviously correct (find me a form of social engagement that doesn’t). But jokes need targets, and a desire to find a joke without any kind of object is to wish that jokes do not exist. A denial of the comedic and a desire to abolish laughter is a fundementally illiberal idea because it seeks to crush sponteneous individualism.

    I split a glass of water this morning. A man laughed. Should I assume that he was mocking me and attempting to demonstrate his superior motor skills? Could this be offensive to people who might be disabled? Should I have lectured him on this issue? Should I report him to the police for presumed discrimination? Would it make the world a better place if I did?

    Reply
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