The Joys of Academia, pt 1 -- on marking papers
I like being an academic. I really do. I am most at home on a campus or in a library or a classroom -- or at a conference, which is like all of those things with all the smartest kids and the couple who are there so you can say, "wtf???"* I love my job. Like most academics, I am no different in that there are those parts of my job that I love to complain about. The most obvious of these is marking papers. We all whinge about it. It takes up huge amounts of time, and can be really demoralizing. Most of the people I know have got to the point where we can differentiate between totally unprepared students and students who just didn't get it, and our responses are different in each case.
When we have totally unprepared students, we can't really feel that guilty about their having done badly. It isn't our fault as college professors that these students never learned to write in complete sentences, let alone an entire essay that answers the question we asked. It isn't our fault if they can't tell water from land on an outline map. They're supposed to know that coming in. Still, as I've said before, a lot of us really have to teach "How to do College". I'm finding that these things are also true at SLAC. I will be marking exams beginning midweek, and I am pretty sure that I will not really be assessing them on how well they've learned the history, because some of them will have failed the exam before I get to historical data and its use. This is a little demoralizing. After all, I'm a professor (assistant) of History, not Composition, right?
Wrong. Historians are writers. It's what we do. It's how we express to others how all the names and dates and stuff that happened go together in some kind of coherent picture that makes sense. I've always known that as a teacher, but I haven't been able to articulate it very well to students when they complain about my not giving them enough credit for "content." Now that I'm writing again, the importance of written communication is much easier for me to explain. Still, there is something very disheartening about essentially failing (or in this case, giving a lot of 'D's, probably) students because they just can't write.**
If a student can't write, I will help them, either myself or by sending the student to the correct places on campus. And since I know how important writing is to my field, I know I am doing my job. I even know, when students do improve, that I am doing my job well. But the necessary focus on writing and other skills the students should already have can mask or interfere with another grading issue. It's an important issue, and I think it's one of the reasons we dread marking, apart from the time-suck. Whether or not we like it, reading and assessing student work forces us (or should force us) to consider our own performance. When we see a consistency in errors, is it our fault? were we not clear enough? Did we not do our jobs well? Of course, that also gives us an opportunity to change how we teach some things to make them clearer. I like that part, but it's hard to get to. I hope I get there with my new students.
This was going to be a post about new challenges that really are old -- marking papers and navigating political waters in a new climate. I'll have to tackle that one later, but I'll give you a not-surprising preview: SLAC has politics. Navigating them is scary and likely to make a new person paranoid.
*or in a restaurant kitchen -- go figure
** including spelling. I have a student who always writes "sum" rather than "some" -- perhaps a texting thing? But I'm trying to figure out a polite and non-embarrasing way to let him know that he really doesn't want to make the equivalent substitution for the spelling of the word 'come'