Professors' Picks: Memorable teaching slip-ups

Queen’s professors share their biggest teaching blunders

Professors recall stories of exam mix-ups and cringe-worthy exchanges.
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As midterm season comes to a close, some of us will be patting ourselves on the back for a job well done—but others may beat themselves up for a bad test or overlooked mistake. 

In times like these, it can be nice to hear that even our school’s leading academics aren’t perfect all the time.

The Journal asked Queen’s professors to share their most memorable teaching slip-ups. We hope these stories remind you that we’re all human—whether you’re taking a midterm or administering one.

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“So math professors write a lot of tests: over the last 20 years, I’ve probably written over 200 of them. One of the time-saving tricks you learn early is to start with last year’s version and edit it. 

This isn’t to re-use the questions, but rather so you remember all the boilerplate: course name, the test date, and all the pesky page formatting that took you an hour to get just right. For the questions themselves, I usually pride myself on new tests being completely different each year. 

That’s why in a calculus class I felt confident telling students that studying from previous tests wouldn’t help them that much, because their test would be unique. And it was. It’s just a shame that my lovely new ‘Test5.pdf’ and last year’s ‘Test5.pdf’ looked so similar when I click-and-dragged the wrong one to the printer. I never caught that the date on the cover was off by a year.

I guess sometimes studying from last year’s test can be the perfect study strategy.”

—Professor Alan Ableson, Department of Mathematics and Statistics

“I came to Queen’s in 1994 after lecturing at Western, Dalhousie, and Bishop’s. All of those universities had the same timetable: if a course had the 4:00 p.m. slot, then all lectures began at that hour. Queen’s has a different system, and it took a while to get used to it. 

In my second year, I had the ever-popular 2:30 p.m. Monday and 4 p.m. Thursday combination. As the clock approached 5:20 one Thursday, I mistakenly thought I had thirty minutes left. It became hard to concentrate when students began to trickle out. 

In those days of smaller classes, students who had to leave early would usually tell you in advance. So imagine my reaction as one student after another left in mid-lecture. 

When half the class had vanished, a brave student told me that I had gone over time. I stopped immediately, but I brooded over the error for days. 

I can’t pretend the experience made me a better teacher, but it did inspire this advice for all lecturers: no one will mind if you finish slightly early.”

—Professor Tracy Ware, English Department  

“Five or six years ago, I was teaching a fourth-year class on elections. For the first time, I was experimenting with doing a final exam in the course to incentivize attendance and doing the readings. Final exams are all centrally administered, and you have to input the details in a special exam request system early in the semester. 

When the preliminary exam schedule came out, my course wasn’t on the list. Internally, I got all snippy, and thought, ‘Well, somebody really dropped the ball.’ Turns out it was me. I had forgotten to book the exam and immediately broke into a cold, panicked sweat. 

I felt like a major loser, like I’d failed to do one of the central parts of my job (I had). As has been my experience throughout my time at Queen’s, I was saved by the care and flexibility of staff. 

My department’s main administrative assistant quickly got on the phone with the person who runs the Exams Office—Deborah Smith, because she deserves to be known—and a solution was offered. I was so grateful, not least because the students in the course never even knew about my mistake. 

I try to remember this slipup of mine when students make their own mistakes, like mixing up exam times. A little kindness and flexibility can make all the difference. I know, because I’ve been on the receiving end many times at Queen’s!”

—Professor Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant, Department of Political Studies 

“Many years ago I was teaching a course on 16th century poetry, which focused for several weeks on erotic poetry: sonnet sequences, epyllia—there was a lot of it around, and it’s important to the culture. 

One student was clearly uncomfortable with the material, and worked up her nerve to ask in class, ‘Is all 16th century literature about sex?’ Without thinking, I replied, ‘No, a lot of it is about God, but it’s really boring.’

As soon as the words left my mouth, I wished I could grab them and pull them back, but the damage was done. I learned that day never to allow myself to go for a glib reply, however tempting. Always approach every topic as if it’s really difficult or sensitive for somebody, because it very well might be. And if somebody has the courage to question what you’re doing, for heaven’s sake answer respectfully.

I still cringe when I think about this.”

—Professor Scott-Morgan Straker, English Department  

“English Professor: Thank you, Evan.

Student: It's David.

English Professor: Goddamn medial V."

—Professor Christopher Fanning, English Department 

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