why I won’t tweet my students’ exam howlers

Another summer marking season, another article in Times Higher Education soliciting student “exam howlers”. This is predictable and wearying and I can’t help but feel that we keep having this exact same conversation about why it’s bad to publicly mock and shame our students. Kirsty Rolfe wrote about talking teaching and making mistakes and I wrote about being someone’s worst student a couple of years ago, but apparently it bears repeating.

There was one respect alone in which Philip was recognized as a man of distinction, though only within the confines of his own Department. He was a superlative examiner of undergraduates: scrupulous, painstaking, stern yet just. No one could award a delicate mark like B+/B+?+ with such confident aim, or justify it with such cogency and conviction.

David Lodge, Changing Places: a tale of two campuses

Like Philip, I try to mark carefully and, being a perfectionist, probably spend far too much time thinking about whether a piece of work should be awarded a 62 or a 64 (let alone a 68 or a 70). Marking can be a joyless task but there’s only one paper that I’ve genuinely been annoyed at marking – one in which the student, in some kind of act of teenage bravado-slash-poor judgement, declared that he wrote the whole thing while hungover and didn’t care. After a week of solid marking, I have to confess that I, in turn, found it difficult to care about this student’s work. But that was a very rare case.

Most of the “exam howlers” seem to be inexpert attempts to apply frameworks and terminology, and while frustrating to see, it’s not something I think should be publicly mocked. I don’t think I have it in me to fault someone for trying – I try to only get irritated when someone truly doesn’t try. And it’s not like the people marking student work have never dropped a stinker themselves. I’ve really liked the #myownexamhowlers hashtag on twitter (storify here).

I don’t remember any specific exam howlers I made – I think I’ve blanked out the entire experience of exams with some degree of success – but a tutor did note that an essay took “a curiously scattergun approach”. I consistently left sweary, abusive messages (e.g. [LOOK UP THE FUCKING DEFINITION YOU FUCKING IDIOT]) to myself in draft chapters I sent to my supervisor (pro tip: use unusual punctuation marks around these to make it easier to use ctrl+f to locate and delete them later). Finally, when I was printing my ~350 page thesis, I dropped the entire thing, hurriedly tried to shove the papers in the right order, failed miserably, and duly presented one of my examiners with a thesis containing a wodge of pages in the wrong order. A true case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory!

Talking about our own exam (and otherwise) howlers opens up a far more interesting conversation. I don’t want to be an unassailable figure of perfection for my students, doing something they can never hope to aspire to. Instead I want to say that I, too, find some things difficult, have fumbled around trying to use the right terminology, have clumsily applied a framework or model, have missed something glaringly obvious. These days I have the luxury of sending my work to knowledgeable colleagues and friends, and my work will be peer-reviewed before publication. Students, especially those working under closed book exam conditions, don’t have that option.

So let’s think a bit more kindly of our students. How many of us working under those conditions, grappling with complex, unfamiliar terminology and ideas that we’d perhaps encountered for the first time only weeks ago, panicky and underslept and stressed, would turn out polished, publishable work? We’ve had years – decades – to hone our academic thinking and writing. They haven’t. If we can’t be kinder, let us at least be more discreet in our unkindness.

(not) writing in public

It’s been very quiet on the blog and there’s a reason for that. I thought I’d write about the reasons behind it.

At the moment I’m juggling several things – an early career researcher’s portfolio, if you will. There are numerous things that I’m involved with, some short term and one longer term, all focused on my area and which will hopefully open doors in the future. However, none of them are things I’m happy to talk about yet – or indeed discuss in detail with anyone but a few close friends and my immediate family. In some cases this is due to the sensitive nature of the project, in others it’s due to the wishes of other people on the project, in others still it’s because things aren’t fully confirmed and I’m loath to count my chickens before they hatch, in yet another yet it’s because it’s still a tentative thing and I’m not sure how closely I want to connect it with my academic identity.

If I were a cleverer writer I’d be able to write carefully, giving you enough to make me seem busy and exciting while withholding juicy details of the stuff I want to keep close to my chest. But I am not that writer, and my current situation is such that none of the things I’m involved in suitable for public consumption (or at least, not yet).

It’s all making me wonder about the nature of blogging and writing in public, and what this means for the early career researcher. Is blogging about our work always an unqualified good thing? What are the disadvantages? What does it mean to get a reputation as someone who thinks and writes in public? Can such a reputation have a detrimental effect – can it mean that you’re less likely to be trusted with classified data and with sensitive research?

It also makes me wonder about the nature of power expressed in these concerns: basically, who gets to research and/or write in public without repercussions? If I were a more senior researcher – had more clout, had the security of a permanent job – how would that change what I felt able to write about here?

A defence of political correctness

Trigger warning: this post contains slurs for race, sexuality, disability, neurodiversity and gender.

So I tweeted something the other night and was a bit surprised that it took off:

As a queer, Asian, female-assigned-at-birth person with an interesting medical history, I like political correctness. Political correctness is why it is generally considered unacceptable to loudly inform me that I am a “chink”, a “paki”, that I should “fuck off back to where [I] came from”, that I should “fuck off back to Santa’s grotto”, that I am a “fucking dyke”, that I am a “fucking lesbian”, that I am a “fucking dwarf” or that I’m an “it”. Obviously not everyone agrees, which is why all of these examples are taken from real life.

When I come across a written article that uses slurs, I am not inclined to read it. I have lots of things to read: my “to read” list is constantly full of books, journal articles, blog posts. Unless someone has contracted my services as a proofreader or copyeditor, I am not obliged to read anything – and I am not wasting my time on something that uses hurtful language. I am not obliged to “look past” those slurs when those slurs hurt me.

If someone who doesn’t have the right to reclaim the term uses the word “tranny” throughout an article, I also have to wonder how far their knowledge extends. As someone who is involved with trans* welfare, health and legal issues, I have to wonder what I can take from it. I read a lot of those articles because one of my academic interests is the media representation of minority groups and issues, but – please forgive me if this sounds arrogant – I tend not to find something interesting and insightful and useful in such articles.

I love words. My degrees have basically been a love affair with words – how they’re used, what they mean, how they come with associations and connotations. I’ve also been accused of being “politically correct” and I’m well familiar with the argument that such political correctness stifles free expression and is a form of censorship. However, I think avoiding these slurs makes me a better, more thoughtful and more creative writer. For example, when I see the word “demented” being used, my mind flashes back to the dementia ward and day hospital where my mum worked and where my sister and I would accompany her if we were off sick from school. I think of my friend’s dad – my mum’s patient – and having to pretend to be my mum because he couldn’t recognise that I was a different person and trying to explain to him that I wasn’t my mum would be pointlessly upsetting. I think of the astonishing people my mum has treated – doctors and teachers and lecturers and footballers – and their families, and the aching loss of a mind, a history, a person.

I almost certainly don’t think what the writer wants me to think, which appears to be “isn’t this insane[1]/outrageous!”.

If I wrote something and there was so great a mismatch between what I wanted to say and what my readers took away from it, I’d consider that an unsuccessful effort. Not because I’d upset someone – I enjoy creating discomfort and disquiet in my creative work – but because I’d upset someone without intending to, because I’d used my words ineffectively, because it meant that I wasn’t doing my best as a writer.

Being politically correct has made me think about my language choices, and to think carefully about what I want to say. I’m reminded of these posters by Alison Rowan:
that's so...

There are lots and lots of alternatives which often express something more precisely. Just look at what you could use instead of “gay”: silly, heinous, preposterous, contemptuous, hideous, hapless, uncouth, unfortunate, deplorable, trashy, ridiculous, atrocious, corrupt, foolish. Or “retarded”: childish, absurd, indiscreet, ignorant, uncool, pointless, careless, irrational, senseless, irresponsible, illogical, unnecessary, trivial, ill-considered, dull, fruitless, silly. Each of those has different shades of meaning. Instead of the scattershot of “retarded” or “gay”, your words can be like precision strikes, hurting only the people you intend to hurt.

If you want to hurt people, that is. How much worse it is if, in your casual and unthinking use of “gay” or “retarded” or “spaz”, you wound someone you never meant to wound, never realised you wounded.

So back to political correctness.

The term “political correctness” was popularised by its opponents; people who agree that political correctness is often a good thing tend to call it other things, like “basic courtesy”. Political correctness means treating people with respect and courtesy, being mindful of what they do and do not want to be called and how they do or do not want to be addressed. It is offering dignity to minority groups, who are already being shat on in so many ways without having to deal with a barrage of slurs.

Saying that you’re against political correctness is not radical or edgy or subversive; it affirms the status quo. It affirms society’s default as white, straight, cisgendered, neurotypical, non-disabled, male. It does not challenge or mock or destabilise power. What, precisely, is subversive about trotting out the same tired racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, ableist crap?


[1] And let us contemplate the wide variety of words used to stigmatise mental illness and neurodiversity.


A couple of weeks ago I found a link to 7 Stupid Thinking Errors You Probably Make and it reminded me of being introduced to fallacies in AS Critical Thinking. There’s a rigorous, elegant beauty to lists of fallacious arguments – that all these fallacies have been recognised and identified and named and summarised. A taxonomy of bad arguments.

They’re very useful for PhD researchers. As people who engage with other people’s arguments, it’s extremely useful to be able to identify fallacious thinking – whether it’s someone else’s or your own. Writing a thesis is hard enough without falling into the trap of straw men or post hoc ergo propter hoc.