Last week, I was so caught up in marking, I did not have time to put together a post, so I was only too happy when Danielle posted on Friday. The reason I was so caught up in marking was trying to return the first essays to the students before they wrote their midterms on Monday. So now I have midterms to mark. And they’ve been sitting on my office desk. Eighty of them. I know better than to commit pathetic fallacy, but I could otherwise easily anthropomorphize the entire stack of exam booklets, especially since Hallowe’en was only two days ago.
My whole shtick is trying to turn a bad situation on its head and find alternatives to things that are unjust, inequitable, or problematic. I don’t have a Messiah complex, but it’s my way of turning bleak criticism into a better reality. So I started to try to envisage marking more generously, as a teaching moment, which is what it should be in the first place. (No, really, it’s what my department document on marking says!) I love teaching, ergo I should love marking. But some of the things I love about teaching are absent in the marking process, especially that human interaction in which the immediacy of reactions can make the process successful exactly because you can see the coin drop or get stuck.
With the marking comments, I’m not convinced that the message actually gets across, because we tend to become so habituated to our own codes, we sometimes fail to translate properly. When you tell a first-year university student she should “take risks” with her argument, what exactly does she understand? Yes, it is my job to explain this shorthand, but when I’m not there to gauge the reaction, how do I know how it’s gone over? Yes, I know there are many problems with the previous question. I should be able to convey my message in writing, which is a part of what I’m teaching as well. But it’s not exactly a question of my conveying, it’s a question of the student’s being receptive. Picture a first-year student, in October, after she’s been bombarded with so many grounding assumptions for the five or six foundational university courses she’s taking, she probably cannot take yet another lecture on how to read my marking comments (and yet I deliver it every time I return essays).
Finally, it might be also an issue of care I’m concerned with. A question of the students’ general well-being. I’ve had a few students tell me of their mental health problems, primarily with anxiety. I’ve directed them to the Mental Health Centre, as I’m not qualified to give them that kind of advice. The most I could do is say “I’m overwhelmed at this time of year, too,” which is true, but feels like something of a cop-out. Where does marking come into this mental-health picture? Well, if I’m trying to convey constructive advice on how to improve writing, but I’m doing it in a language impenetrable to the student, although entrenched in my vocabulary, all I accomplish is increase that student’s anxiety. And I do not want to do it. I want to help her become a better writer while maintaining her sanity. And I’m not sure marking is the best route to that goal, but I’ll be happy and thankful to hear your strategies for effective teaching and learning with marking.