Marking and Possible Industrial Action

I have been somewhat reluctant to blog about marking for various reasons, including reluctance to talk about specifics from essays.  However, I will try to keep everything anonymous and not go into too many specifics.  I feel the issue is important at the moment in part because of a recent THE article about possibly boycotting marking due to the pay dispute.  First, my concerns with marking in general, then a brief discussion of the pay dispute.

This past weekend I finished what should be my last round of essay marking for the year (except one or two strays/extended essays).  My students are first years who must write three 2000-word assessed essays for the course.  They get about ten essay topics to choose from per assignment, so with about twenty students you’d think there would be quite a bit of diversity of topics.  Alas, I have found that almost all my students write about the same two or three topics, completely ignoring many of the others.  Having had about 45 students over the past two years, I’ve probably had at least 30-35 (if not more!) of them write about the Salem witch trials for the first essay.  I have to say, it’s rather boring reading about the slave Tituba and ‘hysterical women’ all the time.  If they wrote something new in the essays, that’d be different; but they all tend to tell the exact same narrative story of slaves, boredom, family feuds and/or (possibly) convulsive ergotism from eating infected rye bread.  They’re just so repetitive.  This last bunch of essays seemed to mostly deal with the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of the New Deal; again with most students delivering the same few sources with the same narrative.

Now, I know my students are smart.  It’s pretty much a requirement to get into one of the Russell Group Universities, so I’m not concerned with their intelligence.  What I’m concerned with is their blind acceptance of sources and the style they use to write their essays.  I’m sure this goes back to their earliest schooling where a teacher (and maybe parent) said ‘because I said so’ in response to a ‘why?’ from the child.  It’s not the student’s fault; and to be fair, it’s probably not the teachers’ fault because they need to get their students to pass standardised tests and are already overworked as it it.  But university has a different set of requirements than primary, secondary  and sixth form.  Here we (or at least me) expect students to ask questions and be inquisitive overall.  So if I present a student with a source, I encourage them to question it — who made it?, why?, what are it’s limitations?, what do others think of it?, is it representative of society overall or merely indicative of the author?, does it have any biases?, that sort of thing.  In class I can raise these questions, but in the essays I can only hope they do it themselves.  So far, unfortunately, most have not.  Maybe I’m expecting too much from them; maybe I’m not instilling that questioning attitude as well as I’d like to think; maybe their earlier schooling is just so ingrained they can’t shake it off.  Whatever the case, most students tend to write narrative essays telling a story rather than analytical essays examining a topic.  That narrative style is great if they were writing novels; it’s not so great writing university level essays.

‘Piled Higher and Deeper’ by Jorge Cham
http://www.phdcomics.com

I understand my students are first years.  There’s a lot to learn and do in your first year of university.  It’s probably their first time away from their parents for any length of time, so there’s not curfew, little ‘adult’ supervision, plenty of nights out, making new friends, joining clubs/sports/societies, etc.  Sometimes it can feel like class and work is an afterthought.  I totally understand, university can be great and is definitely a life changing experience.  And here in the UK, the first year doesn’t really seem to count much in terms of overall marks.  So again, I understand class and work taking a backseat to living life to its fullest.  But there is, of course, a downside to that, in that the habits from first year often translate into habits for second and third year.  So, sadly, getting drunk after a night out with friends and coming to class with a hangover can be common in first year, and continue into second and third years because it became the standard.  The same with essays — doing them the day before they’re due tends to continue throughout the university tenure.  Of course, there are good students who don’t fall into this trap, and those students who do change and learn to handle everything after a few too many nights out, so hope isn’t completely lost.

Which leads me back to the whole point about marking.  Some students don’t seem to incorporate the feedback from essays to improve their grades, instead getting the same general marks for each essay because they continue to make the same mistakes.  Some, oddly, get worse as the year progresses.  Some, however, grow and learn and integrate feedback into increasingly better essays.  Not a year goes by where at least one student goes from a 2:2 first essay to a 1st for the third essay.  Again, I’m not concerned with student intelligence, as 2:2 is a decent (enough) mark and can probably be had with little actual effort.  But even 2:1’s, and definitely firsts, take time, care and persistence.  There’s almost nothing better as a teacher to see students learn and improve, so I’m very proud when that happens.

Now, in regards to industrial action against marking due to pay disputes, I’m in support.  We PhD/postdocs do so much teaching and extra work for which we’re not paid, that a 1% pay rise is ridiculous to even contemplate.  That’s not even keeping up with inflation! If this will show the university (universities) our value, then I’m all for it.  My fear is that the wrong people will end up taking the brunt of the harm, though, including students waiting for marks and new staff.  It’s not fair that students should be harmed for doing their work.  Unfortunately, it’s also not fair that new staff should then be required to do the marking since they are lowest on the totem pole.  Maybe it will make them, and everyone, more aware of the issue (as if they weren’t already!), to further unite us, though.  And hopefully, with enough unity and support changes for the better will actually be made.  No more ridiculously high salary increases for Vice-Chancellors while we zero-hours contracted staff get next to nothing.  It’s neither right nor fair, and definitely time for a change.

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2 Responses to Marking and Possible Industrial Action

  1. gcgosling says:

    Interesting post. I recognise much of what you say about students arriving at university. I felt some of these frustrations a year ago when I had not long started teaching full time. Over the past year I’ve come to a more positive viewpoint. This is not because students don’t have struggle with these things or fall into these traps anymore, or because I’ve stopped caring, but because I’ve seen a lot more of the progression they make. Expecting great essays in the first year is unrealistic, I would say. Instead, it’s about learning how to do the job. I’ve just been having tutorials this week with students in all years. Trust me, by the end of the first year they’ve pretty much all realised what is expected – both intellectually and practically. They will always cluster around popular essay topics (usually the ‘women’ question in my modules), but by the end of their degrees they really can be writing outstandingly original essays on the same topic. Nearly half of my special subject class picked the same 5,000-word essay question, but they all found their own approach to the issue. Two of them even got 80+ marks. My students will tell you readily that I really don’t give out firsts lightly, so that is a real case of exceptional work. Personally, I’m a big fan of exercises in getting students to write their own essay questions – but that wouldn’t work too early. Basically, you’re right – but don’t let it get you down. If you’re alerting them to these things, that’s a really big step.

    • Thanks for the feedback. I try to keep a positive attitude towards teaching and student essays, but it is always good to hear from others who have had similar experiences. As this is only my second year teaching I think I may have come to expect the end-of-year work from my students in the first year to carry over to a different set of students in my second year (if that made sense).

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