New Round of 'Exam Howlers'

What did Stalin really build across Eastern Europe?

July 19, 2012

"Every new generation must rewrite history in its own way," wrote the philosopher R. G. Collingwood. But the surreal historical revisions revealed in Times Higher Education’s annual "exam howlers" competition are probably not what the esteemed University of Oxford don had in mind.

Submitted from the thousands of examination scripts marked this summer, this year’s bumper crop of comical cock-ups provide some unusual takes on world events.

"In 1945 Stalin began to build a buffet zone in Eastern Europe," wrote one second-year student in a module on the Cold War.

"[It] conjures an image of Uncle Joe constructing a trestle-table ­'curtain' from the Baltic to the ­Adriatic to keep the rapacious capitalists at bay with canapés, sausage rolls and cocktail sausages," said Kevin Ruane, professor of modern history at Canterbury Christ Church University, who submitted the entry.

Medievalist David Ganz, emeritus professor in palaeography at King’s College London, was amused by one student’s insistence that in the Middle Ages "most books were written on valium," rather than vellum.

Meanwhile, John Fisher, emeritus professor of Latin American history at the University of Liverpool, was surprised to read that "Spain was a very Catholic country, since Christianity had been taken there in the third century BC."

A second howler submitted by Professor Fisher showed one student preferring to err on the side of caution when it came to the past. "In 1493 Pope Paul V, himself a Catholic, authorized Spain to convert the American Indians," the student reported.

Spelling errors again proved a rich source of amusement. Paul Allain, professor of theater and performance at the University of Kent, enjoyed one s­tudent’s essay on Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski and his “laboratory ­theatre," which required a physically demanding style of acting. The student wrote about actor Ryszard Cieślak "straining at their role in the lavatory theatre."

Sometimes context is key. Writing in an exam on the biology of sperm, one student described the 18th-century Italian naturalist Lazzaro Spallanzani as a "priest cum scientist," according to David Hosken, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Exeter.

And academic referencing was taken to a new level in an entry from Bella Millett, professor of ­English at the University of Southampton, who told how a student introduced a quotation from a ­secondary source with: "As Ibid says."

Matthew Hudson, course leader in wine business at Plumpton College in Sussex, submitted numerous student clangers, but one stood out:  “The 4 Ps of marketing: Product, Price, Place, Distribution.”

The winner will be announced in next week’s THE.

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