Waving whilst Drowning

May 3, 2010

I don’t remember thinking much about the marker’s experience when I submitted my undergraduate assignments. I was too fixated on getting my own work back to care about any pain they were in. If I had thought about it I would have rationalised it as Karma: you caused me pain – you deserve pain back again. As I sit looking at the 20 assignments I have yet to mark today I wonder what I can have done in my life that was so awful to have been deserving of this fate. I don’t remember taking a life, dishonouring my mother or father, or coveting my neighbour’s ass…yet here I am…in hell.

The act of marking is different from the act of reading assignments. The assignments are a joy. I love seeing people’s ideas tumbling onto the pages, with varying degrees of detail and clarity. No matter what the quality of the work is, you can always see the purity of the idea and taste its sweetness on the page. I marvel at the boldness, creativity and courage of the students – the incredible work some have done, and the brave heights some have scaled. I am so humbled by this work. It’s all I can do not to paste them all over my door and cry, “See? See how brilliant these people are? How bright and utterly hopeful they all are?” It’s an antidote to a weary world. It’s a long weekend and I’ve spent every day submerged in beautiful ideas of changing the world for the better. Such a privilege.

But marking? Having to put a cold finite number against each paper? To rank order them and define one as better than another? To judge them as objectively as I can, knowing all the while that subjectivity will and must creep in. Is this worth 2 or 2.5 marks? I struggle to feel generous towards the student whose paper is in 9 point font – at 3am my eyes feel the strain. If nothing else I am jealous of anyone with such perfect vision. It takes effort to mark with a generous and open heart. And I struggle not to feel too much sympathy for the international student who I know must have sweated and laboured over their writing to ensure it was clear and precise despite the seemingly random rules of the English language. I want so desperately to encourage them – and to let them know, that underneath the errors of syntax and grammar their ideas shine clear. .  I open the paper and can see their faces clearly. I know exactly who the student is and I can remember the conversations we’ve had and the questions they’ve asked.

I wish for some other way that this process might be run.

I recall being a first year student – receiving my first university paper back with a 52/100 scrawled across the top – with a tick on the last page. I had gone from a straight A student in my highschool days, to a bare scrape across the line. And I had no compass for three years. I want desperately to save my students from that pointless, impersonal, life wasting experience. My partner shakes his head watching me, saying I spend way too long on each paper. I know I do. I measure it so that neither I or the students will be in doubt about how long I’ve spent thinking it through, and making sure I tend to each paper equally. I want them to know that I have taken this seriously.

It doesn’t matter that they are all adults with a lifetime of experience and their own ways of understanding success and failure. I know that no matter how old we are disappointment stings. I want to hug each student before I hand the essay back and say with sympathy, ‘I’ve been there. I know it.’ Writing is a personal and private act. I want to honour and uplift that act. But my role demands that I act as judge and weigh the worth of their work. And ironically this course is all about taking the private into the public. And how we do that is the skill we are here to develop. Including me it would seem.

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