So after days (or maybe just hours) of writing, not to mention an exhilarating dash across campus to your professor’s office three minutes before deadline, you finally got that paper handed in. The agony, you think, is over, but for some people, the trauma is just beginning. Facing a fresh new pile of papers waiting to be graded, one can only expect that professors have to do something to mix it up a bit. Sometimes that involves getting a little creative with the criticism. We’ve all heard the legend of Harold Bloom’s short-and-heartwarmingly-sweet paper comment, “Admissions error?” Wondering whether any professor has matched Bloom in originality, vitriol or pure hilarity, this reporter asked a few students about the most bizarre paper comments they’ve ever received. Here is a sampling, from benign to brutal:
Mateya Kelley ’05, was left at a loss by the comment from a British professor of hers, who wrote, simply, “Blimey!” Not being particularly well-versed in the subtle connotations of British slang, Kelley wasn’t quite sure how to react. “I wondered, is that good, is that bad? Am I shocked? Am I sad?” Kelley said. What could it possibly translate into in Yankee-speak? “My only guess is that it’s like ‘wow,’ or ‘zoinks.'” Zoinks, indeed.
Alana Tucker ’07 received a French paper back with the comment, “Travaillez le francais!” which could mean “Learn French!” but may, when she thinks about it, actually be something more like “Study French!” Tucker was taken aback by the unnervingly direct comment, but her confusion is, perhaps, indicative of a need to follow the advice.
Not all paper comments, however, actually resort to words to convey professorial anguish at the quality of a students’ work. Chris Fortson ’06 got back the first paper he wrote at Yale, written for English professor Wes Davis, inexplicably chopped into 15 pieces. He butchered the paper. “Yes, he literally did,” Fortson said. “Or not, because he was like, ‘I don’t really know how it happened.’ How could he not know how it happened? It’s still a mystery.” Was it abstract criticism or does Davis simply get overzealous when using a paper cutter? What could Davis have meant by it? “My guess is it was an accident. If not, it was a very non-subtle way to tell me what he thought about my writing.” Did Fortson find this sort of feedback at all helpful? “Professor Davis’ written comments were always very helpful; his more origami-like comments were not.”
But sometimes, professors take the gloves off and really tell students what they think. When Christopher Malizia ’06 got a problem set back from Math professor Serge Lang that was covered in corrections in red ink, he knew something was wrong. As he scanned the page he noticed an abundance of exclamation marks, an oddity for a relatively low-key discipline. Malizia read further, and noticed Lang had written, “No!! Are you drunk? Stoned? Asleep? All of the above?”
Well, was he? “No, in fact I wasn’t,” Malizia said. “Those were really hard problems.”
But students feeling helpless and hopeless before an overzealously critical paper comment can still have the last laugh. Can you say course evaluations?