Tuesday, December 25, 2007

I'm Not Dead Yet (or: Marking Comments Made Simple)

Hello, everyone. Merry Christmas. I'm sorry I've been ignoring this blog since, well, October, but I've been busy marking. And marking. And marking some more. I do not think I shall ever escape from this hellish wasteland of essays without thesis statements, arguments, analysis, complexity of thought, or even simply page numbers; in fact, I still have forty to mark before January 4. When those are done, maybe I'll finally be able to say something about narrative and even update the Filthy Plagiarists' Roll of Dishonour, which I have been neglecting shamefully.*

For now, as a special Holiday Present, I give you:

How to Interpret Your Markers' Cryptic Comments

Markers write in code. They have to; if they wrote what they were actually thinking about your papers, they would probably be fired. However, if you are truly anxious to improve your essay-writing skills, you can learn to crack this code and apply the resulting real messages to your work. Here are a few typical marking comments,** followed by translations from Markerese into English:

Actual Note: You make many interesting points in this essay. However...

Translation: I have nothing good to say about your paper but have been forced by the leaders of the feel-good TAing workshops I have been blackmailed into taking to start with a positive comment, damn it.

Explanation: It is always wise to begin your comments on a high note. The best papers merit comments that are almost all on a high note; the worst can drive markers to start out with, "You have very nice handwriting," or, "The first word of your paper is quite strong." The "interesting points" comment constitutes an act of desperation and often appears on papers that do, in fact, contain no interesting points at all. If a marker tells you your essay is interesting, it probably really isn't.

One caveat: if a marker labels a paper "very interesting" or actually goes on to mention specific points that have impressed her, you're probably all right. It's only when the word "interesting" appears on its own without explanation or elaboration that you're in trouble.

Actual Note: You tend not to delve deeply enough into the significance of the observations you make.

Translation: There is no analysis in this essay! There is no freaking analysis in this essay at all! What the hell is wrong with you? Why are you expecting me to do all your work for you? Grab a clue and actually interpret the text, you lazy, lazy person!

Explanation: The "no analysis" problem has really been getting appallingly bad lately; every literature marker I know brings it up incessantly. When you have to mark a batch of fifty essays and forty-five of them turn out to contain no analysis, you sort of lose it a bit. However, you can't scream at the students; screaming is not productive, and again, it will probably get you fired. The "significance" comment is a polite but perfectly accurate way of describing the problem.

Actual Note: Your writing is often difficult to understand; you tend to lose control of your sentences.

Translation: English has this beautiful thing called "grammar." Please learn it. Once you know what a bloody freaking verb*** is, you may be able to structure your sentences in such a way that they are actually comprehensible to most speakers of the language.

Explanation: As much as I hate to become a grumpy old lady and start in with the "When I was an undergrad, the roads were paved with gold, and we all wrote magical essays that turned into dryads and sang in mystical voices every time we handed them in" kind of garbage, I do have to say that when I was an undergrad, we were actually penalised when we made grammatical and structural errors. If I took marks off my students every time serious errors cropped up, most of my students would fail very, very badly. Many of them don't even proofread. They write these essays at home--on computers--and they don't even proofread. What am I supposed to do with a paper in which Robinson Crusoe's name is spelled in three different ways? Why should I tolerate your apparent inability to tell the difference between Aslan the Lion and Lord Asriel? If that sentence doesn't make sense to me, someone who has been reading this sort of stuff for the last ten years, how can it possibly make sense to you?

Actual Note: Your word choice is sometimes problematic.

Translation: Put your hands in the air and step away from the thesaurus. If you insist on continuing to cling to it, I have this wonderful book you can use in conjunction with it. It's called a dictionary. Do not choose words if you do not bloody well know what they mean!

Explanation: Yes, it's nice to read an essay in which a student doesn't use the word "significant" six times in the same paragraph. No, it's not nice to read an essay in which a student has substituted cogent, compelling, convincing, denoting, eloquent, expressing, expressive, facund, forceful, heavy, important, indicative, knowing, meaning, momentous, powerful, pregnant, representative, rich, sententious, serious, sound, suggestive, symbolic, telling, valid, and weighty**** for "significant" without thinking about whether or not the supposed synonyms really fit. The thesaurus is a wonderful tool, but only in conjunction with a dictionary.

Actual Note: This essay has a lot of potential, but at the moment, it still needs work.

Translation: This essay is terrible. It is really, really terrible. It has "potential" in the same way that a rock has the "potential" to move extremely quickly; however, if you just leave the essay and the rock lying there, they will both remain inert. Please, please, please put more work into your next paper. Think about what you are writing. I know you can. If you don't, you're just going to keep on handing in these stupid damned rocks.

No matter how much we moan and groan (and rant and scream) about your essays, we don't think you are stupid. What infuriates us is that we know you're not stupid...and yet you still insist on handing in terrible essays. You seem to us to be expecting knowledge to seep out of the woodwork and fill you up without you putting in any effort at all. At the same time, we know you will have to work hard to learn how to analyse properly. You sit there and wait for the knowledge to come; we sit there and wait for you to discover that you have to go to the knowledge. The gap between these two sets of assumptions is the Land of the Essay from Hell.

Your paper does have potential. It has the potential not to be bad. We can see the seeds of thought glimmering among the chaff of plot summary. We can sense that if you stopped simply writing down that Alice did go down the rabbit hole and considered for two or three minutes why she went down it, you might discover the wonderful world of Interpretation for yourself.

Merry Christmas, undergrads. I am about to do a number on the essays of some of your comrades. Do not join their swelling ranks.

And have a happy New Year, too.

*There are just too damn many Filthy Plagiarists. They're everywhere. I get dozens a day. I've had to stop writing them down; if I hadn't, I wouldn't have got anything else done this fall. I'll see about revising the way the Roll works and start it up again in January.

**Some of the comments apply mainly to analytical essays on literature, but many of them fit other sorts of papers as well.

***Ah, verbs. Everybody knows what a verb is, right?......Right?......Wrong. Most undergrads will happily describe a verb as "an action word," but many have no idea how to identify one. When I give my students the following sentence:

There is a book on the table.

the majority will identify "on" as the verb. Why? Well...it comes after the subject ("Verbs always come after the subject, right?"), it tells us (they claim) what the book is doing ("It's on the table. What other word could be the verb?"), and, for some reason that really, really escapes me, nobody thinks of "to be" as a verb any more. The whole shape-shifting nature of verbs also eludes students. They don't think of "is," "was," and "to be" as different versions of the same word, and they fail to notice that "on," unlike actual verbs, does not ever change its form.

Yes, I sometimes think that I may soon go mad.

****I admit it: I cut-and-pasted these words from a thesaurus website. The students probably did too.