Friday, 25 May 2018

Inarticulately howling into the void (reprise)

Like most academics right now, I'm marking: dissertations, essays, presentations, performances and online collaborative work. Unlike many academics however, I'm actually enjoying it. Mostly, I must concede, because it distracts me from the multiple horrific things happening at my institution: the brutal dismembering of successful subjects and their teachers; the decision to fire 36 student support workers; the probable loss of one of the most brilliant PhD students I'll ever have because the university's support systems have failed her again and again (oh, and here's a tip for managers in case you're reading: if the director and deputy director of an essential department have left, UPDATE THE DAMNED WEBSITE – in pursuit of a single name I've been passed along a chain of 5 people's automated emails and still haven't achieved my goal); constant demands from bureaucrats for information that's fully available to them already; repeatedly correcting important information that's somehow been mangled; the discovery that my employer has (illegally) underpaid my pension due to using inadequate software and lied to me about it.

Against this background, you can probably understand why even grading 50 essays on the same topic is rather appealing. Marking is always a fraught operation: there are tensions over consistency, media claims of grade inflation, personal preferences about what constitutes quality and good practice, students' and teachers' understanding of how much support and guidance is appropriate… a whole host of issues coalesce over the award of a particular grade. We use the percentage marking system, with which I disagree. The idea that one can coherently justify the award of 56% over 57% in work about characterisation in medieval fabliaux, for instance, seems pseudoscientific. We all, to be honest, have a rough and ready mental model of whether an assignment is excellent (First - 70% and above), good (2.1 60-69%), decent (2.2 50-59%), acceptable (Third - 40-49%) or poor (anything under 40%), then assigning a percentage that communicates whether the piece is near the top, bottom or middle of those ranges. Other pressures include whether a failing piece will be compensatable (i.e. whether the module is a close fail with implications for final degree calculation) and whether the percentage grades will produce a borderline mark: algorithms for calculating final degree outcomes can throw up some weird, counter-intuitive results. The unspoken (actually sometimes spoken) advice is to avoid awarding marks that result in a module grade ending in a 9, whether or not the academic feels this is a fair mark. No wonder too many students get unhealthily fixated by the Degree Result Calculator, endlessly inputting potential marks and wondering whether to prioritise one module or essay over another. And don't get me started on Electronic Marking or Not To Electronically Mark. I found myself semi-ironically using the phrase 'Organic Artisanal Marking' to defend my use of ink on paper: I do type up the substantial feedback but cling to the idea that handwritten marginal comments communicate personalised engagement over the distancing effect of computerised comments.

Underneath all this, however, is an emotional and intellectual roller-coaster as I sit down with a student's ultimate thoughts on the texts I've set them. Although essays are marked anonymously, we obviously recognise the interests and writing styles of those students who have consulted us along the way. We're faced with an index of whether the texts we've asked students to read have struck any kind of chord, and with a whole host of ideas that quite often haven't occurred to me: some convincing, some intriguing, some plain bad. There's nothing like reading an essay to give you a sense of whether and what kind of intellectual communion you've achieved. I'm currently marking dissertations – having done 8 so far, I'm struck by the depth and range of what they're addressing. Some have gone far beyond what's been taught in other modules, and others have found niches I'd never have thought interesting, and have persuaded me otherwise. Not all of them have done a great analytical job, but there hasn't been a single boring or dutiful one so far. It's not just because everything else is rubbish now, but against this backdrop, being able to spend an hour or two on one person's view of a few interesting texts or ideas is just pure pleasure. Obviously I can't mention individual students, but I've read analyses of work by RL Stevenson, Mary Shelley, Ruskin, Gissing, Morrison (A Child of the Jago), Matthew Arnold, Roald Dahl, the Grimms, and Anthony Cartwright…so far. It's been a blast!

Not much time for reading at the moment, but I have devoured Diana Wallace's new biography of Christopher Meredith, Christopher Fowler's The Bleeding Heart (which was OK but I won't be reading the rest of the series), Lloyd Markham's intriguing novella Bad Ideas/Chemicals which actually would have justified another hundred pages, and Nancy Mitford's The Blessing which is just funny.

And now for a bank holiday. No marking, no email, no head/desk interfacing for a whole extra day. See you on the other side. Meanwhile, a musical interlude: the official anthem of simple course leaders pushed beyond their limits.

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