Is Humour Really The Last Stand For British Academia?

Setting exam papers is in some ways the most lonesome (and under-appreciated) form of comedy
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The recent UCU strike over pension rights has brought to public attention the long simmering problem of the commercialisation of higher education. A lot has been written about how students are now seen as consumers, universities fretting about the bottom line and academics being hounded by managers in pursuit of Key Performance Indicators. What is less written about is how lonely academic life has become.

Teaching in modern ‘commercialised’ higher education risks that academics lose their soul running after employability for their students and impact for their research. Nothing is worth doing anymore unless it makes for a punchy bullet point on a CV or has been evidenced in a form. How can one keep their motivation through this dreary modernity, coupled with the ever-present threat of redundancy due to demographics, competition and Brexit? The answer is comedy, and nowhere is humour most fruitful (and paradoxically pointless) than in the context of assessment.

Academics often complain that everyone sees us marking papers, but no one sees us do research. This certainly rings true for me, especially as the marking season approaches with final year exams in May. Like everyone else, I hate marking. Marking intrudes on my life, it is all-consuming. I am doing it while my kids are doing their homework, while they eat, while they sleep. I do it during the day and during the evening. It prevents me from catching a quick pint (drinking combined with marking can have positive or negative impacts on pass rates depending on the examiner’s temperament). It keeps me up at nights.

Dreading as I am the ‘season of the mark’, I realised however that the relationship is not one-directional. Marking does not only intrude on life. Life makes its inroads into marking too, and I do not mean just on how, when and where to do it. I mean that life becomes part of the exam papers themselves. My life is reflected on exam papers that hundreds of students stress over, year in, year out.

Before you get too excited, let me clarify something. I am not that interesting. I am a law lecturer, and a very boring one at that. I primarily teach contract and company law. Yet, setting exam papers in technical subjects becomes a reflection of life, mood and feeling. Setting exam papers is in some ways the most lonesome (and under-appreciated) form of comedy. Inside jokes, wrapped inside references that only I understand keep cropping up in my exam questions. A little spice on the most boring aspect of academic life.

Here are some examples. When my eldest daughter was starting primary school, her best friend was Tara. My problem questions that year featured Tara and Louise starting a business and wondering whether a partnership or a limited company would work better for them. Marcello wanted to join them (as a silent investor). He was Louise’s less than silent partner-in-playground-crime of the era. As the kids grew up and politics became hotter, my dispute-focused problem questions started to feature Arnold and Donald slugging it out. If I could include illustrations on my exam papers, I would have had Schwarzenegger facing up to Trump. I somehow don’t think the External Examiner would approve. The last couple of years, Donald has become an absentee company Director, obsessed with his political career, who neglects his corporate paperwork. This year (look away my students, spoiler ahead) Theresa Nay runs a parody social media account.

Exam writing is an art and as all art it is an exercise in combating loneliness. I do all the things modern teachers are meant to do. I stay within the learning outcomes, I gender and racially diversify the characters’ names. I never start all names with the same letter (no more ‘Jack, Jill and Jacob’) – most lecturers have committed this particular atrocity, admit it. Yet, I also tease and hide jokes in the questions. As I prowl the corridors of desks checking books for illicit notes invigilating the exam itself, I glance at the students for a little smile, some recognition that someone got the joke. No one ever does. They are too stressed or indifferent to notice. But, I try every year. The job is done to perfection, the outcomes are good, the External satisfied. The joke missed.

Is humour really the last stand for British academia? Teaching is nothing short of a performance. A useful one, hopefully, but still a kind of show. Funny cartoons in presentations and spicy language can help wake students up, reach them in different ways. Or perhaps this is what we tell ourselves. As I spend the nights marking, or bent-over papers as the family’s Mays pass unnoticed, I wonder: Will anyone ever get the joke?


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