IBA: I’m bored already

Margin comments your professors wish they could make

Frequent readers of this space will know of my great admiration for the works of Robertson Davies, in part because Davies was so interested in teachers and teaching. The first teacher he created, in Tempest Tost, was Hector Mackilwraith, a straight-laced, self-important mathematics teacher who is merciless in correcting student tests. In Hector’s class wrong answers don’t just get zero, the are actually penalized, so students sometimes earn negative grades on tests. Even worse, in the margins of those tests Hector likes to write TOSASM, meaning The Old Stupid and Silly Mistake.

Anyone who has had to try to sum up problems with marginal abbreviations can relate to Hector. When you really do see the same mistakes over and over again, mistakes you have warned students against in various ways,  it’s hard to keep from writing something mean.

Even when trying to be measured, one sometimes insults or offends. In addition to some of the standard abbreviations (CS: Comma Splice), I used to add some colourful short comments that I thought got the point across in a sort of funny way. For instance, if I found something confusing in a paper I would put a question mark in the margin, and if I was really confused, I would write “huh?”. But someone complained that “huh?” sounded sarcastic so I stopped doing it. Similarly, when a student made an outright factual error, I used to simply write “No” in the margin, but that sparked complaints, too.

Complaining students might be more understanding though, if they knew the things I would like to write in margins sometimes, but won’t. In Hector Mackilwraith’s style, here are a few:

IBA (I’m bored already). This is one I would like to use for essay introductions, particularly introductions that begin with how Webster’s dictionary defines “poem” or what has happened since the beginning of time.

SY (Says you). Instead I usually fall back on “Source” or “Are you sure this is true?”

WHYBAY (Where have you been all year?) This is one I would like to pull out around March when it becomes clear that some students have not been paying attention for the past six months, nor have they been reading any of the other comments on their other papers.

YKUTWIDNTIMWYTIM (You keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means). Like Vizzini in The Princess Bride, students have an inconceivable talent for using words in ways that are almost correct, which is more aggravating than if they used the word entirely incorrectly. Perhaps the worst of these is “portray” as in “Hamlet portrays a man who lacks decisiveness.” No, Hamlet is that man. Shakespeare is portraying him.

It’s been sixty years since Hector Mackilwraith scribbled TOSASM on a  paper and thirty years since Robertson Davies himself was obliged to do similar things at the University of Toronto. I suspect they would both be slyly pleased to know that whatever  changes the world has seen, educators are still correcting the the old stupid and silly mistakes.