It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you!

May 28, 2010

Anyone following this blog will have seen the recent theme: the difficulty I have with the assessment side of the teaching role. Support and development I can do. And I don’t mind challenging students either. But placing a grade on someone and then watching their response to that (inevitably one of disappointment) is torturous.  I struggle with the “judgement” part of the role. I think the difficulty is that the grade distracts from the learning. No matter how much feedback I give, students still react to that little number in the corner –as though their life depended upon it, as though that defined them. And the problem is that I can relate to that.

There’s still that little voice deep inside me that asks “Well, who am I to judge this person?”

There are of course a number of ways of responding to this voice:

  • One could for example, respond through role theory: I am teacher, you are student. This is part of the relationship dynamic. It is also part of the role of teacher to assess.
  • One could try the choice ideology: you chose to come to university, these are the conditions under which one studies. Being judged and graded is part of the experience. You chose this.One could respond through a developmental frame. Part of the process of developing skills is benchmarking progress. Grades are merely a benchmarking exercise to acknowledge levels of competence and to identify areas for further development.
  • One could respond through credentialism: my degrees are evidence of my mastery of the field and enable me to sit in judgement over others.
  • One could respond via industry standards: my peers have judged me to be competent and deemed me of a high enough standard to evaluate the skills of others.
  • One could respond through a cold power play: the university has hired me. This is my job. What I say, goes.
  • One could try logic: if we didn’t award grades there would be no way of assessing who was competent and who was not. This would render your degree no more than an attendance certificate, thus making it relatively worthless.

But this is not about logic, it’s about ego. In the last few weeks I’ve had so many meetings with students who have cried, debated, defended, justified and questioned. I’ve even had one student explain that I clearly didn’t know what I was doing and went on to offer me teaching tips! (For the record and just in case any of my students are reading this, this strategy is unlikely to lead to a higher grade).

However no matter how I explain it, I tie myself in knots over this aspect of the role. No one teaches you how to do it. It’s not like you can take a course in “’how to mark a paper”. There’s no training. If you are lucky (as I have been) sympathetic peers may mentor you for a while. And if you are resourceful you can employ the assistance of institutional experts, like TEDI at UQ, to help build stronger courses and ensure highly relevant marking criteria. But there comes a point where you have to sit down in front of 3500 words and decide if this warrants a 7 or an 8 out of 10. Was this a strong and persuasive argument with the need for additional theory to help provide rigour, or merely a good start with sound arguments but much room for further improvement?  You’d think it would get easier over time. But this is my sixth year teaching at university and I’m still struggling.

In the 1984 text, Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class, Jake Ryan and Charles Sackey wrote of the experience of working class people studying in US colleges. What they observed was a lack of confidence for lower class students, based on real or perceived weaknesses in preparation. Although motivated to do well and extremely aware of the value of education, they lived in silent fear, wondering, “When will they find out that I am a fraud?” Apparently this is vastly different for students from upper class backgrounds, who tend to  have a greater sense of belonging or entitlement in the university system.

I always thought when I  finished my PhD I’d finally have a sense of mastery: a field or endeavour to call my own. Once I was a “Dr” then I could finally relax and stop worrying about being “found out”. But all it did was deepen my paranoia making me so aware of all that I haven’t yet read, all that I still don’t know. So go on, ask me a question: I can almost guarantee you I won’t know the answer!

(on the other hand I probably have a great little process..)


Ryan, Jake and Charles Sackrey, Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class (Boston: South End Press), 1984.


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