History, from Judyism to Chairman Moo

In the nightmare of an exam moment, what college students write in their blue books can be priceless.

For The Record

February 10, 2002|By Marja Mills | Marja Mills,Special to the Sun

Never underestimate what college students hazy on the facts can come up with when faced with the exam-time panic of an empty blue book and a ticking clock.

Professor Anders Henriksson, dean of history at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va., has made a sport of compiling his favorite bloopers from what he swears are real history exams and term papers, such as:

"Hitler's instrumentality of terror was the Gespacho."

"The Civil Rights movement in the U.S.A. turned around the corner with Martin Luther Junior's famous 'If I had a hammer speech.' "

He gets a kick out of other gems sure to send educators around the bend: "Joan of Arc was famous as Noah's wife." And: "Christianity was just another mystery cult until Jesus was born."

"You talk to anyone who has taught and they have read this kind of prose," said Henriksson, a specialist on czarist Russia. He stitched hundreds of such gaffes into a slim volume, Non Campus Mentis: World History According to College Students, which has sold briskly in the few months it has been out. In December, the book made the top 10 on the New York Times Advice, How To and Miscellaneous best-seller list.

Despite students who write that the "airplane was invented and first flown by the Marx brothers" or that "Judyism has one big God named Yahoo," Henricksson, 53, does not conclude that this illustrates a decline in education.

"This is not a scientific sample of what the students know. This is a harvest of the most creative bits of inane writing," he said. "You're talking tens of thousands of papers and we got 600-odd funnies out of them."

"We" is Henriksson and the professors he tapped at another two dozen universities across the U.S. and Canada. Some are friends and former colleagues. Others are professors who learned of Henriksson's blooper collection and offered their own favorites.

So how does he make sure all the gaffes sent to him are authentic?

Henriksson said he personally records some of the sentences straight from blue books and term papers submitted at his own college. "I have a lot on the computer. When I grade exams, I sit with a yellow legal pad next to me and write them down.

"Many [others] come from people I know and trust. I don't ask to see the originals, but you develop an eye for these things. I have a sense of what students do write."

Such as:

"Dim el Sum ruled as 'Head Coucho' of North Korea. China has so many Chinese that forced birth patrol became required. This is where people are allowed to reproduce no more than one half of themselves."

Henriksson doesn't attach students' names to the gaffes. For the most part, he is sympathetic with students who unintentionally provide their professors with reason to laugh, or moan.

"These are mostly blue book excerpts, and we all can remember that time when we were staring at that blue book and didn't know how to fill it and you write something like 'During the Dark Ages it was mostly dark' or you write about 'Chairman Moo' because you can't quite remember."

Other historic figures that surface in the collection of bloopers: "Franklin Eleanor Roosevelt" and "India Gandy." In term papers, computer spell checkers don't pick up those mistakes any more than they spot "their" mistakenly being used for "they're."

The main purpose of his book, Henriksson said, is simply to give people a laugh.

But one warning for those history students who will be winging it come next exam time. Henriksson is considering a sequel.

Marja Mills is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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