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Shortchanging the Subject

Claim:   A professor well known for always asking the same essay question on his final examination crosses up his class one year and substitutes a different question. An unprepared student finds a way of answering the original question anyway.

LEGEND

Example:   [Cerf, 1945]

The learned but unworldly head of the department devoted to the study of comparative religions at Harvard invariably asked the same question on every final examination: "Who, in chronological order, were the Kings of Israel?" Students came to count on this procedure as a sacred institution and prepared accordingly. Some crabby misanthrope tattled and, one precedent-shattering spring, the professor confounded his class by changing the question to: "Who were the major prophets and who were the minor prophets?" The class sat dumbfounded and all but the one member slunk out of the room without writing a word. This sole survivor scribbled furiously and deposited his paper with the air of a conqueror. "Far be it from me," he had written, "to distinguish between these revered gentlemen, but it occurred to me that you might like to have a chronological list of the Kings of Israel."

 

Variations:   Older versions of this legend generally involve a religion class or a class at a religious institution, but more modern forms are likely to feature any type of class. Typical examples of questions and answers are:
Old Question:   Discuss the journeys of St. Paul.
New Question:  : Discuss the Sermon on the Mount.
Answer:   "Who am I to criticize the Master? I would rather discuss the journeys of St. Paul . . ."



Old Question:   Explain the significance of and list in chronological order five kings of Israel.
New Question:   Compare the significant aspects of Shintoism and Buddhism.
Answer:   "Far be it from me to intrude my humble intelligence upon so delicate a subject. Instead I will explain the significance of and list in chronological order five Kings of Israel."



Old Question:   Discuss the earthworm.
New Question:   Discuss the elephant.
Answer:   "The elephant is the largest of all land mammals and is possessed of several distinctive features among which are large floppy ears, enormous paws that are sometimes used as umbrella stands, and a giant worm-like trunk. The earthworm is . . ."

Origins:   This Bible legend of students trying to outsmart the instructor who has thwarted their attempts to take advantage of him dates back to at least the 1940s. Richard Dorson reports it as circulating at Harvard about Robert Benchley, who, when asked an exam question about the diplomatic history of rights to Newfoundland fisheries, allegedly wrote, "This question has long been discussed from the American and British points of view, but has anyone ever considered the viewpoint of the fish?" In any case, the provenance of this legend hardly need be questioned: who among us has not tried to switch subjects when confronted with a question he couldn't answer?

Last updated:   22 June 2011

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Sources:

    Bronner, Simon J.   Piled Higher and Deeper.
    Little Rock: August House, 1990.   ISBN 0-87483-154-7   (pp. 36-37).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Curses! Broiled Again!
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.   ISBN 0-393-30711-5   (pp. 289-291).

    Cerf, Bennett.   Try and Stop Me.
    New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945   (p. 171).

    Dorson, Richard M.   "The Folklore of Colleges."
    The American Mercury.   June 1949   (p. 673).