Working as a professor or a TA, you're responsible for grading a lot of papers. Thousands along the course of your career, in fact. There are those that stick with you because they are so beautifully worded you could kiss each page, and those that stick with you for a whole other reason. Thanks to these professors for sharing the worst paper they ever graded.
1. I had a student who spelled the country Chile as the food, Chili, and whose only references were a couple of links to google maps.
2. First year english class. The assignment was quite simple a literary analysis of a passage of text. One of my students handed in a stack of pornographic comics, featuring the main characters from the text. When I called him to my office and held up the papers, he gasped and said, "I'm so sorry. I was making those as a joke with my roommates, who also study English, and I must have handed you the wrong papers by accident." He was so red-faced by that point. All I could do was laugh and say, "It was actually pretty good."
3. Hard to choose the WORST, but here are a few that really made me scratch my head...
I once had a student who said the biggest issue facing obese (male) children is that they have small penises. Not ONE of the issues, but the BIGGEST issue. I suppose the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and the potential for issues with confidence and bullying pale in comparison to small genitalia in pre-pubescent males.
In the same class a student wrote that single women were at significant risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection from masturbation. The student was in her twenties.
4. Writing Professor here. I have a couple pretty good ones:
I had a student who was doing pretty poorly in my class. He just wasn't showing up and wasn't doing the work. I asked him to come to my office one day and told him that it wasn't mathematically possible to pass the class anymore. He said okay but that he wanted to stay in the class so he'd be better next time around. I said that was fine, and he showed up for the next couple classes. But then, things got weird.
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For the final paper, I was having them analyze a pop culture text: basically, they had to break down and explain a movie, an album, a TV show, or something like that. This student handed me in an album review cut and pasted directly from Rolling Stone's website. Not a single word was even changed. So I asked him to come to my office again after class. I told him that not only did I find the original article that this was plagiarized from, but it also would have failed even if I hadn't (because it had nothing to do with the assignment). I told him that now his F was an XF (failure for academic dishonesty). He started crying and told me he was "just trying to impress me."
5. One summer, I was teaching a "bridge" course that was for new college freshmen who the university had deemed "at risk" for failing out: usually people who either just barely met the requirements for entry, were first-generation students, or both. Most of the students were awesome. They really wanted to prove something and were hard workers.
One student was trying pretty hard, but she clearly just wasn't getting it. I kept working with her one-on-one outside of class and had my TA tutoring her in the evenings. But we both had the same experience: we'd sit down with her, she'd take notes and even write up parts of a paper, and then she'd turn in something totally different (and way worse). This had been going on all semester, so she was doing really poorly in the class.
She had to get an A on the final paper just to scrape by. So both my TA and I were on her to make sure this final paper was an A. Same problem: we'd work with her, she'd get there, and then she'd turn in something totally different.
She handed in a first draft that was completely unrelated to the assignment I had given. The assignment was to analyze an advertisement for the methods it was using to influence people, but she handed in a paper all about Gwen Stefani. Stefani was in the ad, but the student never got around to actually saying anything about the ad itself. I told her she'd have to completely rework her paper. She said okay, and she worked with both the TA and me one-on-one for the next week to get things in order. She left my office the day before the paper was due with a pretty good draft--not an A, but close enough that I could call it an A. She said she'd tweak it a little and then hand it in.
But what do I get the next day? The first draft with one paragraph from the new draft she wrote in my office, and one paragraph plagiarized from someplace online. The new paragraphs were just dropped in there. I wrote her an email explaining the situation and told her she had failed. Her email back to me, and I quote: "ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING ME?" Nothing else. I honestly have no idea what she was thinking, but god damn, I tried really hard to help her succeed.
6. I teach a postgraduate course in marketing, and often ask students to give a 10-minute presentation on any subject related to marketing. I like it when students come up with something personal and original, that I like learning about, myself.
One student gave a presentation about Nike and Roger Federer, which potentially is a great subject.
However, the presentation was totally off track.
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It was 50% about Federer's career, and 50% about how he needed special shoes due to previous injuries. He did not bring up anything related to marketing, for example how Federer was a great celebrity endorser for the brand.
In fact he seemed to believe that the co-branded shoes were primarily made for Federer, because he needed special shoes, not for regular Nike customers.
7. I was a TA when I was getting my masters degree in music, and at the end of every semester we would allow the students to either take a final exam or do an in depth analysis of a piece of music and write a paper on the analysis. Some were good, some were not as good, but one student absolutely blew my mind.
When I grade, I always read a paper through first without being really critical just to get a feel for the overall effect of the paper, and I then read through it again to find specific errors in the content, argument, or the writing in general. I read through this particular paper and thought "wow, there is some really great and insightful analysis going on here."
I then read it through again, and I notice something.
After the first paragraph, there is a sentence that contains an open quotation mark that started a parenthetical quote. On the first reading, I thought that the student just forgot the other set of quotation marks, and since the style guide we use required endnotes and not footnotes, I hadn't yet seen the citation. However, what I didn't notice on the first reading was that there was another quotation mark... at the end of the second to last paragraph....
So, if you haven't figured it out yet, this student did not plagiarize the analysis, but instead parenthetically quoted and correctly cited the entirety of someone else's analysis. I honestly just couldn't believe what I was seeing, and had to study it for a good 10 minutes to convince myself that that is in fact what this student had done.
We made him take the exam.
8. For their autobiography, I had one student give me something that was barely a half page of incoherent rabble. Some typos were so bad it looked like they typed by smashing their face into the keyboard. Another student turned in a reflection paper that was supposed to be on a current political issue either nationally or globally. The paper was instead on their favorite sport, which they misspelled. I had another student that decided to not turn in any of the papers he had to do until the day after the semester ended. I looked at only one of those papers, and it was unbelievable.
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It looked like he threw words on the page an hour before he sent them to me. That paper along with the rest of them immediately went into the trash.
9. Worst was easily the essay on Columbia the university instead of Colombia the country.
10. First year physics student fitted an entire 8 question assignment onto a single page of A4. So far, not so bad - if the university I recently moved to allowed students to hand in paper assignments. Nope. Everything must be scanned and uploaded to the online system - the university provides scanners and photocopiers in the library just for this reason.
Student took a photo of the assignment with his mid-2000s flip phone in what I can only imagine was a concrete, windowless cell lit by a single, flickering lightbulb, uploaded the file as a low res JPEG about 250x600px across.
I also got one random assignment I had to send to IT to have the file converted from MS Publisher into something my computer could open (last version of publisher came out in ~2012, I don't have access to the software). Had to email the student to have them resubmit because the equations they'd added got parsed as random-ass rectangles.
Students now get the 'this is camscanner and this is how to make a PDF' talk.
11. was grading a students paper regarding "The Tales of the Heike". I can't remember the line verbatim but the one that took the cake was "readers can agree that Morinaga was kind of a dick."
12. I teach a course on Law, Society and Technology to Software Engineers. Students are assigned an essay where they have to write about how new technology has interacted with law or society to try to take a technology and think about how the specific, technical details have had an impact in a balanced way.
I let students choose topics and as a result I get some really interesting ones. I've graded several papers paper written on Gamergate, which is a term that concerns issues of sexism and progressivism in video game culture, stemming from a harassment campaign conducted primarily through the use of the Twitter hashtag
#GamerGate. One paper stands out among the rest.
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One stands out because it talked about the problems feminism and Social Justice Warriors were causing for the development of new technology and science in general. The student suggested that scientific progress can only be made by men because women can't do maths (source:youtube), that the entire independent gaming industry was controlled by feminists who had used their wiles (not joking that's the term) to infiltrate the controlling roles in the industry (source:youtube) and that feminism has killed more people that communism (source:youtube). In fact, all the sources were youtube.
13. In my AP Literature course, I was grading a paper from a student for whom a C- would be an achievement.
The first paragraph is fantastic. I'm impressed. The second paragraph, awful. The third is again written eloquently, the fourth is atrocious. I call the student to my desk after class, set his paper between us, and tell him I haven't Googled anything yet. But if he'd like to tell me anything about the paper before I did, this was his opportunity.
"Yeah I plagiarized a lot of it."
14. I taught second semester introductory biology classes for majors. Our students had to write lab reports on an in-class experiment we did involving snails.
Two students managed to misspell "snail". One spelled it "snale" and the other spelled it "snell". There are plenty of hard words to spell in biology, but snail is not one of them.
15. Definitely the one where the student copied and pasted several paragraphs from Wikipedia without bothering to change the formatting of the hyperlinks before printing it off.
16. I had a student who spelled the country Chile as the food, Chili, and whose only references were a couple of links to google maps.
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17. I was a TA for a class one time. A sophomore girl wrote an entire 8 page paper on the use of color in early Islamic architecture except there was one problem - all of her examples were Buddhist temples located in east Asia.
18. I've taught a bunch of different classes that required essays. My favorites include a paper on Taoism, which was completely blank. It would have been cute had a dozen students not tried that before. I get it, but you still have to write the damn paper.
The worst was in a composition class where a student asked for special permission to write her paper on her culture. I agreed, mostly so I would get to read something not on the same boring five topics I was forced to assign. The student turns in the rough draft and the paper is literally a copy/paste from a tourism website, so I turn the student in for a plagiarism violation (after trying to reach out to the student multiple times).
Guess what the student turns in for the final? The exact. Same. Paper. That's two plagiarism violations in one term in case anyone is counting. Needless to say, the student was given a zero in my course and most likely expelled from the university.
19. My favourite paper wasn't necessarily the worst, it was just the most baffling. My students had to write an essay on whether "graffiti had to be vandalism to be an art form. Needless to say, this is a somewhat difficult concept for some students, especially those with an ESL background.
One such young woman didn't quite understand what I was going for and sat with me during office hours. I tried to explain it to her with a few examples. For instance, 'do you think, for instance, the crude drawings of penises on a bathroom stall are examples of art? What about scribbles on a wall?' - if not, then why not? Alternately, do you think a beautiful mural criticizing a Wal-mart on an actual wal-mart would still be artistically impactful if you took it out of it's contexts and instead put it in a gallery?
Anyway, we discussed her perceptions on art and how she felt about these examples. She left feeling much more focussed and I felt good to've helped.
Two weeks later I get a copy of her essay.
It was titled "Are Penises Art?". The essay was a very well researched and in depth analysis of penis art throughout history. There were pictures, and a whole historical analysis about cocks and balls as depicted in art work. Her search history is still no doubt eroding her computer from within. There was nothing related to the original question, but the essay was so odd and so out of nowhere and brought me so much joy that I passed it.