all confronted, from time to time, with truly outrageous student errors--I
call them "wonder-blunders." Lists of the funny ones, different in every
discipline, even circulate on the Internet. As a novice teacher of first-year
composition, I've already encountered my share; in writing classes,
the worst errors are usually language-related. One that I remember vividly
occurred this spring: a student of mine, clearly meaning to discuss
individual "religious affiliations," instead wrote three pages--not
ironic--concerning "religious afflictions."
are never around when I'm grading papers, I can behave naturally when
I first encounter such blunders. My first instinct, of course, is
to laugh. My second instinct is to share the joke with whoever's around.
Often this is another writing instructor, who will understand not
only the humor but also the pathos of such an error, and who will
join me in giving way to my third instinct, which is to wail and whimper.
But I opted
to censor both my glee and my horror when commenting on the student's
paper, circling the error and writing a quiet "Affiliations?" in the
margin (in blue ink, not red). I now think that this was the wrong
approach. This unemphatic correction set the student straight (I hope)
on the distinction between these two particular words, but she probably
never realized how much the blunder lowered her credibility, how much
So I determined
that I'd let my sense of humor have a freer range when I came across
the next wonder-blunder. It seemed to me then, and does still, that
students need to be told when they are making themselves ridiculous.
I thought a little ribbing, and a little consequent embarrassment,
might motivate my students to improve, since my various lectures on
Self-Culture, Job Prospects, Communication, Scholarly Standards, and
even Your Grade seemed to have little effect.
to institute this new program during a class discussion was, predictably,
a major blunder of my own. When the class came to discuss the paper
of a student who, bizarrely and archaically, not only capitalized
the first word after every semi-colon, but also insisted that his
English teacher had taught him to do so, I cracked, "Well, either
he ought to be in an insane asylum, or you took that class in the
eighteenth century." He was not amused, and was rather sullen for
a while. More importantly, the rest of the class also reacted with
definite unease, and workshop sessions were difficult for a time after
that. I had not only made a rather snide remark, I had sent my class
the message that my own wit took precedence over their improvement.
these experiences, I now follow two policies in responding to the
wonder-blunder, emphasizing the enormity of the mistake without making
the student too resentful:
the students are the best critics of each others' most glaring mistakes.
Workshops, made possible by the blessed photocopy machine, are standard
practice in beginning composition, and ought to be employed whenever
possible in other classes. They teach the students that scholarly
writing is a public genre, and that it's not only picky teachers,
forever correcting, who will notice a blunder.
gang up on each other, as sometimes happens, it's still easier to
defuse unhealthy tension between students than it is to resolve hostility
between myself and the class. This has also proven to be a good way
to address other uncomfortable issues about a student's paper apparent
racism, for instance.
comments, a quick joke is often the best way to show why certain mistakes
are ludicrous--in a way the student isn't likely to forget. There
may well be an ethical problem with making fun of my students behind
their backs, but the practice has gained me so much real help from
my colleagues that I'm not willing to abandon it just yet. It seems
more to the point that my students be allowed to share the joke, and
even have it explained to them, if necessary.
coming across an early college paper of my own, I was reminded again
both of the power of a quip and of why I shouldn't allow myself to
get too self-righteous: "Up to the Victorian age," I had
typed, "political and economic theories had been on the whole
that to George Washington and George III," advised the margin.