Essay-marking 3: Son of the Bride of the First-Year Essays

Posted by September Blue Friday, 31 October 2008 3 comments

Essay 21 - I think this student is both smarter than me and on hallucinogenic drugs.

Essay 22 - More creative writing. I am very impressed with the quality of the student creative writing this semester. Except, in this case... well, see, they're supposed to be responding creatively to a particular text, and not so much in this case. So although it's a great piece they've written, it won't get the grade it would in a creative writing class. Alas, student.

Essay 23 - The exact opposite of 'The Waste Land and Me' - spotting all the right things, really knowing their stuff about poetic terminology, but it reads like they've been taught to write by catching a poem and drowning it in formaldehyde.

Essay 24 - This one has some excellent turns of phrase. They seem to seep out by accident (I get the feeling this student's learned to write the same way the writer of Essay 23 did), but they're great all the same.

Essay 25 - So good that my current choice of marking implement (metallic turquoise gel pen) seems to tarnish it somehow.

Essay 26 - ESL student doing a creative piece, where some of the ESL idiosyncrasies actually work surprisingly well.

Essay 27 - This one is really, really good, and the student's clearly done a lot of reading. The critics do swamp the student's own ideas a bit, as critics are wont to do, but we can work on that.

Essay 28 - I swear we went over the problems with 'many similarities and many differences' the week before these came in.

Essay 29 - Excellent ideas, somewhat lacking in execution. When even the Victorianist marking your essays thinks your sentences are unbearably long, you might want to work on knowing when to stop.

Essay 30 - Another good grade, another very similar registration number. (This is one of the main problems with anonymous marking, especially when you have a lot of essays to mark; seven-digit registration numbers that will quite often differ by only one digit pave a dangerous path into confusion and chaos when it comes to submitting grades.)

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Essay-marking, part 2

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 30 October 2008 2 comments

Essay 11 - ARGH. I wish we had a whole separate grade category for essays like this one (garbled, repetitive, nonsensical, half the length it should be, etc etc etc). Since we do not, I will console myself with stories of people handing essays back In The Old Days with comments upon them like 'I am returning this perfectly good paper to you because some idiot has scrawled nonsense all over it'.

Essay 12 - This one won't get a much better grade than Essay 11, but I don't mind ones like this anywhere near so much - the student is clearly trying, just has real difficulties with basic writing skills. That can be worked on. (Preferably in primary school teachers why are you letting children get through the system without knowing what a comma is, but whatever.)

Essay 13 - Yay for student creative writing! (The essays I'm marking at the moment are a mixture of creative/analytic responses to texts, which is an... interesting idea.) And this one's very vivid and pretty creepy (deliberately so!), which is great fun to read even when the exposition is a little clunky.

Essay 14 - There had to be a plagiarist sooner or later. And to this one's credit, I got almost to the end of the essay before turning to Dr Google. (Oh, the shame - usually I'm much quicker off the mark than that.) It looks like it's about 70% plagiarised, with another short paragraph that I know has to be lifted from somewhere and can't find. Thanks to some judicious word-swapping and sentence-rearranging, Turnitin passed it through as fine.

Essay 15 - OH for heaven's sake TWO plagiarists in a ROW is just not FAIR. This one seemed a little bit less dire at the start, but by the final pages had degenerated into copy/paste/right-click-thesaurus to the point where the final sentences didn't even make any kind of sense.

Essay 16 - Written by the student themselves, o frabjous day! And this is an interesting one, because it's doing a lot of things right but has also headed off down the wrong road from the start, in the model Stanley Fish described re: hypothetical journal articles nobody would want to read as 'The Waste Land and Me'.

Essay 17 - I love this one.

Essay 18 - More creative writing! And very vivid, although possibly would have been better served had someone confiscated the author's thesaurus beforehand.

Essay 19 - Whoever is in charge of the language proficiency requirements for exchange students needs to be fired. This student is clearly trying very hard, but I can't at all follow what they're saying.

Essay 20 - MORE PLAGIARISM! Greeeeeeat. And the thing is, if I turned up my existing speech on secondary sources and referencing and plagiarism to make it sound even more scary, I'm fairly sure it wouldn't touch the ones who already think I won't spot it, and the overly nervous ones who are worried about accidental plagiarism would fret themselves into panic. Sigh.

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Essay-marking, live! (Part 1 of several)

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 26 October 2008 2 comments

*Pause to hunt down interestingly-coloured pen.*

Essay 1 - Two sheets of paper. One of which is the cover sheet. For a 2000 word essay. Huh. Oh, no, it's just in REALLY tiny font. I'm putting this one back in the pile, my eyes can't deal with that at 11pm.

Essay 2 - What is it with students inventing their own paragraphing system? Loads of mine do this two-tier thing, where a blank line means an actual new paragraph while a line break means, I don't know, a change of subject within the paragraph or something. It's really curious. But this is an interesting essay - no real argument, no clear train of thought on anything, but clearly written by a student who really likes poetry and wants to talk about how it sounds. This is the kind of student whose grade could go up a lot in essays to come.

Essay 3 - This one worried me. It's a close-reading of a poem in which the student's chosen the most negative, bleak, life-is-nothing interpretation of everything, to a point beyond misreading (e.g. the poem mentions 'a town', and the student writes that not naming this town contributes to the apathetic and boring feeling of existence the poem describes... and on, and on, for a whole essay). Yeah, this one goes into the Discuss With A Colleague pile.

Essay 4 - Wow, this one can write. I am so impressed by how confidently some of my students write when it's their first university essay; I don't think I was anywhere near this brave. (Although, here's a frightening thought - I was having lunch with the person who taught me first-year English as an undergrad the other day, and he remembered which short story I'd written on for that first essay. ERK.)

Essay 5 - CONGRATULATIONS STUDENT for getting every single presentation category ticked in the 'unsatisfactory' box! This takes real dedication. Ignoring the stylesheet and all my advice risks getting one right by accident; this, my friends, is skill.

Essay 6 - I feel a little sorry for students who've spent however many years at school being taught how to write a book report, and then get to university where their book report is going to get the same grade this one will. It's a pretty good book report, too.

Essay 7 - This is odd. It starts off without an argument, it continues for a long time without an argument, and then it sort of picks up an argument without realising it on page 3. Your subconscious already wants to write literary criticism! Trust the Force, Luke!

Essay 8 - This was brilliant. Really brilliant. But so cautious! Half an essay written in the form of "Possibly this is going too far but it occurred to me possibly that in my opinion maybe it could be argued that [really insightful point here]." Whoever this is (all our marking is done anonymously), I wish they'd start sitting next to the student who wrote Essay 4.

Essay 9 - If you're not sure what the question means, then adding "This proves how [question here] is true" every fifth sentence is probably not the way to go.

Essay 10 - Oh, the dreaded essay written by the exchange student whose English really isn't up to essay-writing level. I feel mean telling them off for this as if it's something they can just Work Harder At - it's truly not their fault that the language-proficiency tests done with some of the exchange universities are really not up to scratch - but, all the same, I can't even understand what this one's saying half the time.

Also, I need more sleep

Posted by September Blue Friday, 24 October 2008 1 comments

OH MY GOD YOU GUYS a bunch of us just went out for drinks and we were at this fancy new restaurant which to be honest was kind of expensive and I think they didn't like it when we just ordered starters but whatever because it's mid-semester break and this means we can go out and wilt into chairs and compare stories from teaching all night long so anyway there we were talking about the temperature because three of us said the room was too hot and the other one said she was suddenly freezing cold and she held up one of her arms and it was covered in goosebumps and then an empty wine-glass moved across the table towards her all by itself and she didn't see it but two of us just stared and stared and then we put the glass back and tried to jiggle the table or lean on it or something to see if we could make the glass move that way and it wasn't budging and then the waiter came over so we said "Is this place haunted?" and he blinked at us and we said "No REALLY is it really HAUNTED because that glass just moved ALL BY ITSELF we SWEAR" and he said he'd go away and ask someone if they'd heard anything because he was new and then we never saw him again.

Which I think is possibly because he's a student in our department. And because he's still in the kitchen telling the chef that TAs just absolutely lose the plot at mid-semester break. Which is fair.

(But I swear, that glass moved.)

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Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 22 October 2008 0 comments

I share an office, so people who need to talk to their students will usually end up doing it with a few TAs present. Annoying, but, you know. Mostly we don't pay too much attention to what someone else's student is talking about; this time, because my friend is teaching the creepiest student alive, I did.

Not that I knew she was teaching the creepiest student alive. I knew she was teaching a student that seemed to have some problems beyond a more typical glowering-bratty-teenager model - this student had, for example, suggested during a discussion that the death penalty should be brought back and extended to cover a wide range of crimes, and shrugged off someone else's 'What if innocent people end up getting executed?' with 'Doesn't matter - people are shit and there's too many of them anyway' - but hey, sullen misanthropy is something students have grown out of before, I'm sure. And mostly we all assumed he was putting it on as an act.

Having heard this kid speak now, I am fairly sure he's not.

And the thing is, he didn't even say anything disturbing in that meeting. No threats, nothing like that. He was polite and attentive. I wish I could put into words just what was so disturbing about him, but I don't think I can beyond saying that he held a conversation like he was talking to ELIZA. This wasn't shyness, or social awkwardness, or autism failing to pick up on social cues - this was a blankness. I didn't even look up from my own work, and it still made my skin creep.

My friend's half-course has finished, so she's not teaching him any more. Other people still are. The student support people are 'keeping an eye on him', which seems epically ineffective as a tactic - but what else could they do, really?

I don't even know what this kid looked like. Maybe I'll see him in a newspaper one day.

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Teaching and politics

Posted by September Blue Friday, 10 October 2008 3 comments

As a general principle, I'm fine with the idea that my students shouldn't be unduly influenced by my own views. True, since they're taught by a person rather than a series of PowerPoint slides, I don't think it's possible - let alone desirable - to act as if I have no opinions of my own when I'm teaching, but my opinions shouldn't be presented as unilateral truth. Or maybe they shouldn't even be presented. Donne was a genius, fine; people who write on whiteboards with permanent markers should be tarred and feathered, okay; but nobody in my class needs to know whether or not I go to church or where I stand on Trident, and they certainly don't need to hear that my opinions on any such matters are The Truth, disagree with me and your grades will pay the price.

So that's the theory. Simple enough.

A while ago, I was teaching an introduction to forms of literary representation using three images of Guernica/Gernika after the Luftwaffe bombing. One photograph of blackened, half-destroyed buildings; one aerial map of the town showing the areas hit; one copy of Picasso's painting. I recommend this to anyone teaching the same kind of thing, too. Forget starting off with George Eliot and medieval allegory. Anyway, the way we talked about the pictures treated the bombing unambiguously as a Bad Thing, but I thought that was fairly non-controversial - until a few weeks later, when one of my students handed in an essay on an unrelated topic that turned into a paean for Franco somewhere around the middle of page 3.


I know my students aren't always going to share my views on politics. I know my students aren't always going to share my views on history. But I did think we might have some common ground on the matter of fascist dictators.

I was reminded of this recently after talking about another incident of several years ago with one of my colleagues, in which I cut a student off mid-sentence and didn't let him finish voicing a particularly homophobic opinion (something beginning with the words 'Of course, all right-thinking people are obviously repulsed...', if I remember right). It's the only time in my teaching career I've ever done that, and I don't regret it. To that student, I'm sure, it looked like I was stamping down on discussion by only letting the views I agreed with get heard. To the others? Who knows.

So then, what's my role in those situations? I shouldn't be using my position of authority as a political pulpit, and my students have every right to hold whatever bizarre, repellent or horrifying views they want. Should I keep in mind that the quiet, sullen student at the back might very well disagree with whatever the rest of the class is saying, and attempt to balance the discussions accordingly? Give equal time to pro-Franco views? Make sure the students are aware that there are at least two sides to every story and that it's not for me to make moral judgments? "Okay, everybody, I see what you're saying, but let's remember that the supporters of baby-bayonetting have a right to their opinion as well?"

It'd be disingeneous to pretend I was morally torn on this issue. I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with the idea that viciously homophobic and pro-fascist students might feel marginalised for their views, really. Ideally, fine, I'd let them bring their ideas to the discussion, and hear them out, and then gently nudge them with a series of non-confrontational questions and possibly a poem or two into a position where they realised what was truly important in life and tearfully repented of their ignorance, and they'd be the first students to stand on their desks and recite 'O Captain, My Captain' on my last day - but the semester is too short for ideally. And while I could avoid all potential confrontation by refusing to discuss any emotionally charged subjects and making sure any strongly-held views got dissipated by an unstoppable bland wave of let's agree to disagree, I don't think this is the point of studying literature.

I wonder what this looks like from the students' perspective.

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