Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The Afternoon Vole

Welcome, friends, to Marking Hell, In Marking Hell, academics are condemned to face the consequences of their teaching. Those little jokes, the examples that seemed clear enough at the time, the quotes that you thought you could bear seeing repeated back to you over and over again with added mis-spellings. In Marking Hell, we're made to realise how little of what we say actually goes in. For instance, when I say (and put up on screen in massive texts) things like YOU CANNOT CLAIM THAT VIDEO GAMES CAUSES VIOLENCE BECAUSE MEDIA EFFECTS RESEARCH IS TENUOUS AT BEST, I assume it means that the students are inured to Daily Mail claims about video games and violence. I even ask them to estimate how many 'people' they've killed on screen, then how many people they've killed in real life. They all laugh. Then they write things like 'Many mass murderers are associated with video games'.

While we're on the subject, we also ask 'do you believe everything you see on TV?'. They all say no. Then they write things like 'TV manipulates viewers into thinking x, y and z'. Oh, it's just other people who are stupid passive fleshbags is it? (This is another favourite Daily Mail line).

Today I've also had someone criticise EastEnders for featuring Muslim homosexuals, because 'the ethics of Islam forbid homosexuality'. Unfortunately, the Qu'ran must not forbid plagiarism because that particular essay is virtually completely downloaded from the web. I've also read a female student explaining that pornography is feminist because it allows women to exploit men from the safety and comfort of a TV studio. OK, it's a more sophisticated way of being wrong than simply asserting a load of inaccurate 'facts' or relying on the Ayn Rand Lexicon for definitions (seriously), but Marking Hell is one of those regular occasions when my hope that each generation becomes more liberal is dashed. If I had a pound for every time a female told me that feminism was 'boring' or 'pointless', I'd have a fully funded pension and would currently be putting on my snow-shoes for a Norwegian mountaineering trip.

I'm not normally this downcast by marking. There are always some excellent essays and it's rare that I don't learn something: one student turned in a ridiculously interesting analysis of Tumblr that was clearly all her own work and drew on most of the theory we'd mentioned and some more we hadn't. But I marked 15 essays today and failed 9 of them. I'm not going to generalise about a generation, and certainly not going to claim it was better in my day. Although it was harder to plagiarise: essays were handwritten, so you had to read every word you were copying out, which must have made people think about what they were writing, once they'd been to the library to find something worth copying out! Now it's all Wikipedia, or (I kid you not, it was in the bibliography) AS Level Media Studies: The Essentials.

I had a ridiculously easy time at university. Lectures, with a single tutorial each week, and tutors who wanted one essay a term. My students have a seminar with each lecture and two pieces of work per module – loads more than me. A lot more is expected of them, but they get a lot more support, attention and advice, not least on how to research and write essays.

Clearly with this failure level – and my colleagues report similar grades – something has gone wrong either with the teaching or how we train students to produce academic work. We'll have an inquest and talk to the students to get their point of view. Perhaps the concept of academic writing is problematic at first-year level, perhaps they take a mistaken instrumentalist approach that doesn't work, perhaps the sparkiness we see in class masks doubt and confusion. With some of them, there's a clear causal link between non-attendance and failure. We don't give them the answers in class, but we show them where to look for good leads!

Perhaps it's a subject thing: my English literature classes aren't as bad at the moment, though I have more leeway there to choose obscure texts that have no presence on the internet! One thing that really bothers me about the first-year media group at the moment though is the lack of curiosity. They're content to say 'everyone' does, watches, believes or uses x, y or z. Many of them tell us they have a strict diet of very limited media consumption and don't really care about anything else: channels they don't watch, ownership, regulation. Things just are – there's no political or cultural context worth examining for some of them.

One essay today told me that the media behaves badly because it doesn't let people carry on believing what they're taught but tries to make them think differently. Oddly enough, that's what I hope my lectures do!

So anyway, it's back to the drawing board…

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