We’re not laughing at you. Well, sometimes we are…

A little knowledge is a hilarious thing.

One of the guilty pleasures of being a professor is laughing at students’ writing. We probably shouldn’t, but when so many papers induce wincing, and so many more induce snoring, it’s hard not to chuckle when the opportunity presents itself.

The best bloopers (including many of these reported at Inside Higher Ed) are those where a simple but crucial spelling mistake, malapropism, or badly structured sentence results in students asserting things that are still meaningful, but entirely different than what they must have intended. That is, if the student is just completely wrong, it’s not funny; it’s only funny if they are almost right and yet still completely wrong.

For example, Milton lost his vision and could not see when he composed Paradise Lost. This, then, is not funny:

Surprisingly, when Milton composed his greatest poem he was completely deaf.

But this is funny:

Surprisingly, when Milton composed his greatest poem he was completely blonde.

I just made that up, but the IHE piece gives a real-life example of Pettigrew’s Principle on bloopers:

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.”

Ask anyone who has been teaching at university for a while, and they will give you more examples. I, for instance, often have students of Doctor Faustus tell me that Faustus sold his soul to satin, and Shakespeare students earnestly explain that Othello was tricked into believing in Desdemona’s quilt. Once, in a paper on Arthur C. Clarke’s story “The Star” (in which a scientist’s religious faith is challenged when he proves The Star of Bethlehem was a supernova that destroyed a thriving civilization), a student suggested that the main character could not fathom why God “could not have chosen an uninhibited planet.”

Student bloopers not only provide much-needed moments of catharsis during long marking sessions, they also allow for professors to bond. You see, not only do your professors laugh at silly student errors, they share them with their colleagues. A psychologist down the hall once came to my office door and told me about a student defining “avoidance behaviour.” In class, the professor had explained that one argument against corporal punishment in schools is that the kids so punished simply stop coming to school altogether — avoiding the situation, not changing their behaviours. The student dutifully reproduced the example on  the exam: “Schools should not use capital punishment on students, or the students might stop coming.” Yeah, no kidding.

Profs share these unintentional howlers not to belittle the particular students — the code of the blooper says you must never give the student’s name — but rather to remind themselves that they are not alone. We all deal with the half-hearted and the half-witted. You think you have it bad? Just listen to this.

If it seems cruel that I, safely nestled behind my Ph.D. and my tenured position, am making light of those young strivers who are just trying to get through their classes, remember that I too was once an undergraduate struggling to show I knew what I was supposed to know and not always getting it right. Thus, as a first-year history student I wrote,

Napoleon’s soldiers returned from Russia a fraction of their former size.

If you are a student, feel free to have a good laugh at that. I have no doubt my prof did back then. And she probably showed it to the guy in the next office.

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