Time for late confessions. This story dates back to the 2000s, and it is about free diffusion of knowledge, internet, evolution, an angry academic and a monster (I mean “another monster”, distinct from the angry academic). It was the 2007, and I was hardly trying to find a way out from my bachelor degree. At the time, I had to do the exam of Evolutionary Zoology, which classes were held by Professor Raffaele Scopelliti at the Dept. of Zoology of the Sapienza University. I was never the one for sitting in a classroom, and skipped as much classes as I could. It was permitted, and the schedule was so terribly organised that was really hard to embed your commitments. This was the life at the Italian university during the 2000s. Courses overlapped, the thesis lab-work could take all your day, and the best you could do to survive was to choose a comfortable library to sit down and study for extra-session exams. I was told that things turned slightly better in the last years, but then this confusion matched a lot with my natural “too cool for school” attitude, taking me far from lessons very often. During the spring of 2007 I had few time to study Evolutionary Zoology, I did not attend the course, and needed a solution. Usually, the solution in these cases was to grab someone else’s notes, and one day my friend Amro showed up with a copybook full of notes from the Prof. Scopelliti’s lessons. The notes belonged to a girl I never knew the name. Amro had to return the notebook to her soon, and suggested me to photocopy all the pages.
I started to rewrite the notes on Google Docs, organising them as a real text book, with chapters, sections, headings and all the rest. It was tough sometimes, since the photocopies of a handwritten text are hard to read, and often it turned to be a matter of free interpretation. Also, from time to time I found my activity quite boring, and since I am a huge fucker, I started to thread jokes and foul language in my writing. As said, it was the 2007, and that story of the Flying Spaghetti monster was just starting to spread in Europe. As I started to rewrite the lesson that swiftly (and of course critically) described the alternative evolutionary theories, from Lamarck to Creationism, I had the brilliant idea to insert a description of the Flying Spaghetti Monster theory, taking care to mention that was a hilarious fact.
The exam day had come, and the result was strikingly good: 30 out of 30, the best mark you can get in the wierd Italian evaluation scale. The real problems arose later. I was very active in promoting things such as open science and the free distribution of knowledge at the time, and the best I could do in my own little was to publish my notes on a biology students unofficial forum we had (there was no Facebook yet, oldie me). The response was good. Students appreciated the initiative, the link was diffusing very quickly, and people was quite happy to read notes where some joke could eventually pop up from time to time and kill the bore. Unfortunately, a couple of months later, I spotted a post on the message board of the official website of the Faculty of Biology. It was authored by Raffaele Scopelliti, and the title was “Warning on Evolutionary Zoology fake-notes“.
I opened the message and the body was imperative and threatening. I don’t remember the exact words, but it sounded like this:
Dear Students, someone has published some very inaccurate and awkwardly incorrect Evolutionary Zoology notes that are referred to my lessons. I gave no permission to publish them. I urge you to quit studying from them. I don’t know the author of this brilliant work, but I swear that I will find this guy.
I gave it no much importance. My exam was done and registered, and I was far and safe from professor’s anger. But later on, I was explained how he came across my notes. First, some transcription errors spread out, becoming very popular among the students, just like the Haeckel’s Biogenetic Law that was written as “Haeckel’s Progenetic Law” because of a misreading of mine. Also, it seemed that anyone really liked the story of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to the point that many people reported it during the exam. In Italy the most of the exams consist in oral interviews, and those present told me that professor Scopelliti, after having heard the story of the monster for the umpteenth time, literally started to yell “who told you about this damned monster”?
The fact itself is funny, expecially if you consider the very formal italian academic environment. I admit that my story is of small interest, but I guess we could learn something from it. When I published online my document, I carefully and repeatedly warned the people that they had to check everything on it, that those pages represented just a raw product, and that it was full of inaccurancies to be corrected. Actually, this story taught me something on the way university students do their work. The most of the times people is so focused on learning as most notions they can, without giving the due consideration to the critical review. At the time, it made me think. I knew I wasn’t any better than the most of the people, and the same lack of criticism that gets students to talk about flying monsters in an Evolution exam could have affected me as well. Also, it was the first time when I experienced the danger of freely diffusing information on the internet, and some long reflections could be made on this point too.
But this is mostly a post for a late confession. Dear prof. Scopelliti, I have no idea whether you will ever read these lines or not, but I guess that you might remember this story. I just want you to know that it was me, that I am still trying to make my way in Evolutionary Biology, and no. I don’t apologise for what I did.
My notes were still better than the nothing you shared as course materials.