Inside Higher Education just put up a list of the winners of the "exam howlers" competition. Some are funny. Some are dumb. Some I don't get the humor about — they're not howlers, but just things that put sad on my face. I've been teaching for a while, and I've got a pretty good list, myself. Papers referring to Descartes "cognito" argument and complaining that there are no disguises, one paper on Aristotle's Five Causes which double-dips on efficient causation, and one jaw-dropper of a short essay on why we shouldn't worry about fallacies, because we'll never argue perfectly. Also, since I edit a journal, I've got my fill of crazy submissions, too. And I mean crazytown.
I got to wondering about these competitions. Are they in the wrong spirit, especially for educators? I mean, I've had many a laugh over beers with colleagues about some silly student paper, or a goofy journal article I'm reviewing. I don't see much wrong with that. But why the public display? A private chuckle over a student's error is one thing, but isn't putting that material up for public ridicule another? Doesn't this break a tacit agreement of confidentiality between teachers and students to do this? For example, I always ask students who wrote exemplary papers for my classes if I could save them and use them as models for further classes. It seems wrong for me to use those papers, even in praise, without their permission. Isn't it the same with howlers?