Tuesday, 15 May 2012

By popular request…

Occasionally, I get fan mail and requests. One reader, whom we'll call Bruno di Gradi because that's his online identity, suggested this:
Do you know what would make a good blog post from your good self? One where you outline your thought process for marking essays
As it happens, I'm in the office until 10 tonight, marking essays and I need a break, so I'll take this one on. Maybe it will help.

In no particular order (and apologies if some of this seems patronising, but I promise that it's all based in true-life experience).

1. Read the texts you're writing about. Read them again. Underline bits. If you're writing about news, watch some. Read some. Read some more. Reference every idea: you get credit for this.

2. Have an opinion. This is a scary one. I keep telling my students that I can find out what the critics think by reaching for a book. What I want from you is an informed opinion. Obviously you haven't the time and experience to lock horns with the Lacanians, but you can demonstrate that you've looked around the various ways to read texts, understood them, and find a particular approach more compelling. Opinion - as Martin Eve points out to me - doesn't mean a free-for-all, even if you've inhaled the entire corpus of reader-response criticism ('meanings are created in the space between the reader and the text'). 'Argument' is better.

Don't let your reading dominate your response (I struggle with this one) but draw on them for support and also to show that you know there are other options. It's NOT a matter of listing critics who agree with you: it's about using critical work to situate your argument, (in Martin's words), saying something in a shorter space, or to add originality by pointing out where previous critics have overlooked or misinterpreted something. I frequently find myself writing 'I totally disagree with you - but you make a good case. Have an A grade'.

3. Engage with the text. Don't airily state that X is an idiotic character - show me.

4. Don't be afraid to confront complexity and ambiguity. When an essay tells me that an author, character, plot, genre, event or whatever is 'obviously' anything, I sigh and shake my head and get out the extra-red red pen. Everything's complicated. If you think something's simple, you haven't been looking closely enough. If your essay recognises that the subject is more complicated - and therefore more interesting - than it first appears, then you're on the way to having an argument. There's no answer: only potential answers.

5. Bibliography. Have one. It's the first thing I look at. An honest one: just the stuff you've read and/or cited. Remember: I've read everything on the reading list and I know what's in the library (so don't distort quotations to suit your point either). If you come up with a text printed in a limited edition Mayan-language edition, I'm going to be a teensy bit suspicious. While we're on the subject, Googling key words and then citing the single page of Google Books that comes up is not research.

Ask yourself if you've done the right kind of research. If your bibliography includes school-level crammer texts, you're not taking it seriously. If you cite - as more than one student did recently - X for Dummies, ask yourself this: are you a dummy? If you got into university, the answer should be 'no, therefore I do not need books designed explicitly for dummies'.

If your bibliography looks lazy or stolen, I'm likely to be suspicious for the rest of the essay-reading experience. Don't nick stuff - you just generate ill-feeling and rip yourself off.

The point is this: we're not testing your data mining skills. We're not really testing you: we're giving academic credibility to your own process of education. If you pretend to have read an essay when really you've only nicked a sentence to make you look informed, you're ripping yourself off. On the other hand, if you've read that chapter, struggled with it and still don't feel quite sure you've understood it, I'm happy. We can talk about it and you've taken control of your own education.

6. Proof-read. Get someone else to proof-read it. Twice. Put your work away for a couple of days and go back to it with fresh eyes. Obviously this requires a degree of forethought and planning, but it really helps… or so I'm told. Don't try to copy the academic style you see in books and articles. Some of those people could make a volcano tedious (I was recently shown a piece which made penis-size the most boring subject on earth, which is some feat given the amount of email I get on the subject). Also, the good ones have been doing it for a long time. It takes practice. Aim for clarity and simplicity. Build complexity from there if you need to: don't be tempted by the idea that you become an academic by performing like one. There are enough charlatans in here already.

7. Enjoy it. This might sound silly, but if you're not interested, you'll produce a humdrum text. You don't have to like every text on which you write. You might think it's the worst thing you've ever read. But trust us: there's a point to it. Look for that point. Ask yourself (or us) why we've picked this. Enthusiasm goes a hell of a long way.

8. Avoid the broad, sweeping and unprovable assertion. I know that Shakespeare was a great writer. You don't have to prove it. What you need to do is explain the odd bits. How does a text work (or not)? Why does media ownership matter?

9. Think about your reader. Treat her/him as ignorant but intelligent: like a detective in the mansion library, guide them through the maze until they see it your way, without patronising them. Also, ask yourself whether they'd want to read it: is the structure clear and logical? Is it written literately? Would you like it passed around the office for the admiration (or scorn) of your marker's colleagues? Does your opening paragraph grab my attention, or is it a mimsy bit of cliche-ridden tedium? Right from the start, tell me what you're doing, how you're doing it and why you're doing it like that. Then do it. I mark well-written essays really quickly because I can get straight to the ideas. If I have to decode every sentence, then marking becomes a test of attrition in which there's only one loser: you.

Every teacher's inspiration - Severus Snape

Imagine having to read this piece of work out in front of me. Would you do it, or would you like to shrivel up into an atom? If the latter, rewrite it.

10. Mean it. Perhaps I shouldn't, but I'm always kinder to people who've wrestled with a topic and been defeated than those who've clearly breezed in and winged it on their wits. Talk to us well in advance, however scared or confident you are. Some of my favourite students have been people who got third-class degrees by the sweat of their brows, because they've been transformed: the eventual grade is nowhere near as important as the degree to which your understanding of and approach to the world has been changed.

11. Presentation: the academic requirements are about clarity. Use them. Think about physical things too: Comic Sans, for instance, just makes me unreasonably angry.

This isn't what I want.

12. Think about the piece of work. How are you imagining it? If it's as an imposition, a punishment, a drag, then it's going to be rubbish (unless you're very good at faking it). Imagine it as a conversation between two learned people: you're part of an academic community, not a beggar at the gates. If you have the confidence to behave like a colleague in this process, my marking will reflect this. With good essays, I never have to write 'this isn't a sentence' or 'try to spell Shakespeare's name correctly': instead, I write further questions or ideas in the margins, or 'I never thought about it like this before'. Please make me do this more often.

Conversely, the students who get first-class degrees are the ones who are passionate - analytical skills alone won't get you there. I like people who argue, in class and on paper. Awkward people who've read around the subject and trip me up in the midst of my lecture are brilliant. Pour it all out on paper and take risks: you might go astray, but that's an educational experience in itself.

In summary: enthusiasm and dedication will get you there. We're here for you. The work is designed to help you. It shouldn't even be called work. The whole discourse and marking thing seems like a punishment process but it's disciplinary in a different sense: it's meant to help you grasp the requirements of the discipline. I want you to remain passionate or acquire passion, but along the way to abandon naivety in exchange for a more purposeful excitement. My boss has a good line about the importance of joining in seminar discussions rather than lounging silently at the back relying on other people to do the work: 'you don't get fit by going down to the gym and watching someone else's workout'.

13. If it seemed easy to you, check again. Could you have done better? Maybe you are on top of the whole thing - good for you. But too often uninformed essays are the most confident ones. If you haven't stretched your brain for this one, you've missed the point of the whole exercise.

I know that a lot of this is very naive. And that I'll think of other criteria at random points over the next few days - but I'd really like to hear from you. Is this stuff fair? Unfair? Helpful?


Rob Spence said...

Yes, I agree with all of that! I don't think it is naive - some students just don't get what being a student means. This should help them.

Some Chilean Woman said...

Oh my! So glad I am not your student! Although I'd like my kids to be your students, they deserve a good education.

The Plashing Vole said...

SCW: wI'm not scary! I'm the nice one…