Sunday, 04 November 2007

Urban legends of the classroom

The rule that urban legends usually emerge in an environment of fear or uncertainty is completely shattered by one distinctive, worldwide community: the student population.

Any campus is a melting pot of characters, situations, hopes, dreams and ... good old mischief. Students like to be believe they are all young Einsteins. From this over-confidence emerges numerous urban legends about just how clever they are. Appropriately, then, we start with ...

The brilliant student

A student went into his final exam with an A average for his year's work, but the pressure had been getting to him, and he wasn't so well prepared for this last hurdle. The exam consisted of just two essay questions and, sure enough, he went blank on the first.

So he filled his first answer pad with anything he could think of, and then requested a second. He labelled it Book II, and began on the opening page with what appeared to be the last sentence or two of the first book. On the second page he wrote down the heading to Question 2, and wrote a beautiful answer. He handed in only the second book.

A few days later he received a postcard from his department head saying he had got an A for the course and apologising for having lost the first book.


The trained professor

Students at a certain university wanted to test the theories of their psychology professor - on himself. They decided to "train" him - without him realising he was being trained - to lecture while standing on a small dustbin.

They would fidget, yawn, cough, and slump in their seats whenever he walked away from the dustbin. The moment he walked towards the dustbin, they would sit up, and stop fidgeting. The closer he moved towards the dustbin, the more interested they pretended to be in his lecture. They would smile at him, and nod their approval every time he made a point.

Subconsciously, he responded to their interest, and spent more and more time near the dustbin. After a couple of sessions, they had no difficulty in keeping him by the dustbin throughout the lecture.

For the next phase of their experiment, they turned the dustbin upside down before he entered the classroom. Now the students began fidgeting and getting bored even when the professor was standing near the dustbin. They refused to "reward" him with their approval until he moved right up against the dustbin, and finally gave him their undivided attention only when he put one foot on the dustbin.

The next lecture was the climax: the professor ended off his lecture standing on top of the dustbin!


If you wonder how such stories get around, this one had some serious help: it was once repeated by no less than BF Skinner, one of the leading lights of the school of psychology known as behavioural conditioning (see a detailed discussion here). His version went like this:

"They (students) began the class period with deadpan indifference. When the professor moved towards the chosen corner, they nodded and smiled. He was soon teetering on the edge (of the lecturing platform). A signal went out, and the nods and smiles were withheld until he turned towards the blackboard. I was told he finished his lecture facing the board and talking over his shoulder - arguing meanwhile that operant (behavioural) conditioning worked with cats and pigeons but not with people."


The sneaky student

Then there was the student who ignored the professor's instruction during a final exam that everyone stop writing and hand in their answer papers. He wrote for another minute and then stepped forward to place his paper on the pile at the front desk.

The professor refused to accept it.

"What will happen to me?" the student pleaded.

"You'll fail, of course," said the prof.

After begging and pleading to no avail, the student suddenly drew himself erect and said, "Do you know who I am?"

The prof replied: "No, and I don't care."

"Good," said the student, thrust his paper into the middle of the pile of identical answer papers, and stalked out of the exam hall.


The not-so-stupid prof

A tough professor was famous for his low grading scale on term essays. But, after years of giving only Cs and Ds, one year he finally gave a paper a B minus.

Word got around, and the student in question sold his paper to the highest bidder the following year. The purchaser than wrote it in his own words, and submitted it to the same prof - and this time got a B!

The paper was recycled again the following year, and given a B plus. Finally, a year later, it was awarded an A. But it came with a written comment at the end: "I've read this paper four times now, and I like it better each time."


Another version, set in a marine-biology course, sees the recycling of a paper that includes a sketch of a whale. By its third re-use, the student accidentally left off the sketch of the whale, and received the paper back with only a B symbol, and the comment, "I liked it better with the whale."

The ultimate version of this urban legend is the tale of the paper that is repeatedly recycled for 20 years. One year the professor gives it an A, saying he always liked it but he only got a B when he first wrote it himself.

Odds and ends

There are many more of the same: all urban legends that require a stretch of belief, but that, just maybe, could have happened on a campus somehow, somewhere. To strike a balance, let's conclude with a clever student AND a clever prof:

* A professor discovers that one copy of an exam paper has been stolen from his office. He cuts the rest of the papers all one inch shorter - and nails the kid who hands in the longer paper.

* And then there's the prof who allows students to "bring in what they can carry for the exam" - and one student carries in a postgraduate student.



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