Academics: Stop laughing at exams!

It’s that time of year again. Academics mark exams and, often in frustration, laugh at the mistakes students make.

Stop it.

Just stop it.

You look like dicks.

It pisses me off partly because I’m dyslexic. I’ve spent my whole life worrying about being laughed at about crap like this. It’s a constant struggle to remember which way around an “e” is and I find it very hard to remember words (and those I do, I’m scared I’ll pronounce or spell wrong so I pretend I don’t know them). Worrying about that distracts me from other stuff so I get that wrong too. I’m in a constant state of literacy anxiety. Mrs Malaprop, Dogberry, the Reverend Spooner, George W. Bush and other cultural icons of varying degrees of fictionality, oh so funny because they mixed things up. Not.

It also pisses me off as a teacher. It bugs my professionalism. Because that stupidity you’re laughing at? It was the job of you and your colleagues to help these students get over that. Who failed, exactly? We should take mistakes as a form of feedback. Also, we should be giving students space where they can comfortably mess up. University is a time where students can and should get things wrong, and learn from that.

I don’t think anyone should laugh at stupidity, but I especially don’t think academics should. You’re educators, you should be able to treat the various performances of knowing and not-knowing with more grace and nuanced understanding. You’re also coming from a huge position of intellectual privilege. It just looks a bit crass to sit there with all those letters after your name, laughing at failures, especially as it’s meant to be your job to full gaps in understanding and resolve such misunderstanding.

Seriously. Look at yourself.

The one story of a “exam howler” I like was told by an old undergrad tutor. A student had momentarily forgotten the name of the social theorist, so wrote “Professor Bumlick” instead. Apparently, it was a great essay, apart from the bit about Professor Bumlick. The thing I like about this story is that it’s the student who is taking the piss – drawing attention to their own forgetfulness but also laughing at the slightly odd things they’re asked to do at university (take exams, revere individual sociologists). That tutor would also say that he’d mark our work looking for what was good in a paper, not mark down what’s bad. I found it very liberating, and enabling, to know that. I think I produced much better work after he’d told us that. It’s the approach I’ve since tried to take in my own teaching.

If you want a comic break from exam marking, try this set of defaced exams/ textbooks instead. I like the one with the fox, and the global warming walrus. Much better than laughing at someone who accidentally wrote anus when they meant heinous.

A version of this appeared in the Times Higher a couple of years ago, now behind their paywall.

5 thoughts on “Academics: Stop laughing at exams!

  1. Tim

    Yes – most of my tutors at university would say, about coursework or exams: “You don’t start off on 100% and lose marks. You start with 0% and earn them” which is a) worth remembering for the student, like you say quite liberating, and b) the fairest way to mark work; on all its merit.

    Reply
  2. sarahwaurechen

    I actually include discussion of online etiquette and my zero tolerance policy when it comes to mocking students whenever I start a semester with new TAs. Thank you so much for writing about this. It’s something that has annoyed me for a long time.

    Reply
  3. katherinepandora

    And probably most of these profs wouldn’t like it if students posted snarky comments to twitter or facebook about awkward lecture moments they’ve observed, and encouraged others to compile lists of faculty blunders to pass around.

    There is way too much “us and them” stratified thinking in the academy, and it always distresses me to see professors sinking to it, even when it’s passed off as letting off steam in a “light-hearted” manner after a tough semester. Mocking the powerful is one thing, but taking pot shots at those you consider subject to your authority is a whole other matter. Thanks for posting this!

    Reply
  4. chekeichan

    Repeated postings of student mistakes is a good way to leave my Facebook wall. I’ve only sparingly posted sites that students have plagiarized for their writing. Students are here to learn so mocking honest mistakes is unconscionable to me.

    Reply

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