Monday, 1 April 2013

Student stunts

Hello. My name is Kostas Economides and I am a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the South of England (USE for short). Well, actually that is not true really as the names of individuals and institutions in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty!

I was having a coffee in the cafeteria with Gus Johns the other day when Bob Bunn came in to get himself a coffee to take away. Bob is an ex Head of Department, retired for some years now, but still doing some part-time teaching for us. Gus and Bob exchanged pleasantries and Bob left to go to a class.

Gus looked across at me and smiled. "I will never forget Bob's 60th birthday" he said. The students had heard that it was his birthday and organised a policewoman strippergram to come to his big microeconomics lecture. Apparently when she had first entered the lecture theatre Bob froze in alarm, mid-sentence. Some people wondered if he hadn't immediately realised that the woman was not a real police office. Maybe he had concerns that something bad he had done had been discovered. Anyway, it very quickly became clear what her real purpose was as she said "Dr Bunn, you have been a very naughty boy" and started to removed her clothing. The students, of course, yelped with delight. The woman then started to try to hold on to Bob, who pulled himself away and said "Enough of this. Please stop". Eventually one of the more responsible students who could see that Bob was quite distressed about the whole thing ushered the woman out of the door. Bob said, "OK, lecture over" and stormed out. Later he read the riot act to the students and said he didn't want anything like that to be even contemplated in the future.

"Oh, we have had a few student stunts over the years" said Gus, who then proceeded to tell me about some of them. One, dating back to the late 1970s, involved a huge plastic spider that the students had rigged up on an elaborate pulley system just above where the lecturers stood to deliver the lecture. At a certain point in the lecture one of the students would activate the pulley and move the spider right above the lecturer's head. When the students started to laugh the poor unfortunate lecturer (usually a young inexperienced one) would start to panic thinking that his flies were undone, or that he had rubbed chalk on his face.

Then there were the times when a student would get into the control room at the back of the lecture theatre and use the controls to move the blackboards about remotely (often to reveal a message written up beforehand on the rear blackboard) or just to gradually dim the room lights. All pretty harmless really, but designed to unsettle a hesitant lecturer.

Another thing that students have done more recently is to slip an extra slide or two into a lecturer's Power Point presentation. Some of the econometrics lectures were scheduled as two hour double lectures, but of course with a break at the halfway point where people could leave the lecture room for ten minutes to have a coffee or a smoke. At this midpoint the lecturer concerned left the room without logging out of the computer system. So it was easy for the students to introduce a couple of slides that would get displayed during the second hour. One showed some glamorous looking women with the caption "Econometric Models" . Another displayed the photo of a lecturer who was not well loved by the students with the caption "Biased".

Gus said that he remembered another occasion some years earlier when a group of students tried to catch the attention of Dr Bell from the Maths department who was giving some second year lectures in statistics. Apparently Bell had a reputation for avoiding any eye contact with students. He would enter the lecture room and immediately start to cover the blackboard with theorems and diagrams. He would keep this up for the entire lecture with his back towards the students and not so much even a glance at them to see if they were understanding what he was doing. Then at the end of the lecture he would quickly leave the room in case anybody tried to ask him a question. So one week four of the students hired fancy dress costumes - one was a clown, another was Superman, and they all sat together right up in the front row. They felt sure that Dr Bell would see them out of the corner of his eye and have to make some comment. They were wrong. Whilst the entire class was waiting to see when he would spot the dressed up students, as usual Dr Bell ploughed on relentlessly and left without a comment. It was after this, Gus said, that the department decided it would be better to get the stats lectures given by a quantitative economist from within the department.

Gus's final story didn't relate to USE at all, but to the University of Warwick back in the 1960s when Gus went there to be interviewed for a place on the undergraduate degree. After the individual interviews, a guided tour of the campus and a nice lunch, the prospective students were asked all to go to a lecture room where they would have a talk from the Head of Department and there would be an opportunity to ask questions. Gus said that after a few minutes a man in his early thirties, well dressed in a suit and tie, came into the room. He introduced himself as Professor Graham Pyatt and said it was nice to see us all here and hoped that quite a few of us would be back here in October to start the course which, he claimed, was second to none in the country. He then said that as modern economics courses did require some knowledge of mathematics, particularly algebra, he was going to give us a short maths test to see if we would be able to cope or not. He distributed the test papers and then said that he had to just pop out for a few minutes. He would trust us not to cheat while he was out of the room. Off he went and we started to look at the questions in front of us. The first few were fine. Gus remembers that one was something of the form Y=100+0.8Y - solve for Y. Another had two simultaneous equations in P and Q that you had to solve. Perfectly sensible problems that an economics student might have to deal with. But when he turned the paper over it was immediately obvious to him that he next question was a bit different. Effectively they were being asked to prove Fermat's last theorem. It was at this point that another man in his early thirties entered the room. "Good afternoon everyone, my name is Professor Pyatt and I am the Head of Department". Then, seeing that we were all engaged looking at our test papers he said "Hello, what is going on here?" Looking at the questions he said that we had been the victims of a student prank. He had been stopped along the corridor by a group of students just long enough for his entrance to be delayed giving time for one of the mature students to come and impersonate him. He said that he hoped it hadn't spooked us too much and was actually a sign of how good relations were between staff and students at Warwick. Many of the lecturers were still quite young and identified very closely with the students. Gus said that this was certainly borne out by his experience at Warwick.

Gus then went on to say that when he first came to USE and was given the responsibility of teaching the first year quantitative methods course he made use of a simple maths during the first week of the course to help him establish exactly what maths students knew and to help him identify students who might need extra help. As happened in those days the test was typed up by Sally, one of the secretaries. There were 30 short questions in the test and Gus said that he asked Sally to try the test. He said that she got a score of 8 and he used this as the benchmark to identify real problem students. Anyone who couldn't get 8/30 would definitely need help!

Of course the stunts that students play on each other are often more extreme than what they do to lecturers. They do things like putting cling film over toilet seats so that someone going to the loo half asleep in the middle of the night would get a nasty surprise. Or after a drunken night you might wake up to find your head has been shaved. Another thing I have heard of is blue dye being put into shampoo or Deep Heat in people's underpants. Ouch!

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