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.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...
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Rin said...
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Rin said...

In your 'the Hell?' section, the second one was someone searching for a joke/story thing about two students who are assigned an essay. I just recognized it and thought i'd tell you.

Fernando said...

What if a marker labels a paper "quite interesting"? Is it any good?

Kem said...

Fernando: It could be. It's usually just the word "interesting" by itself, without qualification, that acts as code for "almost without redemption." The phrase "quite interesting" MAY count as damning with faint praise, but not if the marker follows it up with a description of HOW the paper/point/etc. is "quite interesting."

Fernando said...

"Very well revised and quite interesting" is all the label says; it sounds good to me.

Kem said...

Yeah...that's probably fine...but it seems a little lazy on the marker's part. Granted, I have complete sympathy with markers who don't want to spend hours composing beautifully constructed comments that no one is going to read, but still: one brief phrase? It isn't even a complete sentence. The horror. The horror.

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Kyle said...

Kem - will we be seeing any new entries any time soon? I keep checking back, hoping there might be something new.

Would it help to say "please"?

Kem said...

Hi, Kyle. I'm really, really sorry I haven't posted since Christmas; it's been kind of a busy term. At the moment, I'm teaching a summer course for six hours a week (and commuting to another city, two hours away, in order to do so), and I really don't have very much spare time. I'll try to get SOMETHING up relatively soon. Perhaps I can convince myself to write a series of SHORT entries instead of my usual novels.

Hang in there. The blog will return...eventually...I hope...


Kyle said...

That's okay - I've taught summer courses myself, although I've never had to drive two hours to teach them.

Best of luck to you!

Kem said...

Drive? No such luck. I get to take the Greyhound. Actually, when you figure in the subway and the city bus, the commute stretches to over three hours. On Tuesdays, I rise at 4:00 a.m. in order to make a 1:00 p.m. class. Alas and wellaway.

The things I'll do for rent money...honestly.

Catherine said...

Dear Kem

Please allow me to express my delight and (somewhat undiplomatic) astonishment that someone has finally produced a writing guide of practical benefit to undergraduate and graduate students.

Oh my lord, do I love this. As a graduate in English, a full-time graduate administrator and a freelance proofreader, my pedantic soul has too often been bashed and bruised by what passes for good English in academic writing. I have been recommending your guide to a number of students ever since I had the good fortune to read it.

One small criticism: why, oh why do people insist on including inappropriate punctuation at the end of a quotation (within the quotation marks)? For example, in "Commas are not 'pauses'...not 'pauses' at all" you write "If you write, 'It was however not a good day to die,' I shall metaphorically flay you". Why should the comma after "die" appear inside the quotation mark? The comma here is not an intrinsic part of the construction "It was not however a good day to die", but a necessary element of punctuation in your own sentence. Another example, under "I, We, You, They, Argh, Argh, Argh": "if you were unsure as to whether you were referring to a man or a woman, you could choose 'he.'" Could you really choose to use "he.", with a full stop at the end, or would you choose to use "he"?

Pedantry aside, I too loathe and despise the use of the third-person plural personal pronoun to refer to a single person, and I am very much taken with your response to the dilemma of single third-person personal pronoun use. I had resigned myself, reluctantly, to the use of s/he, or her/his; but alternating the use of 'she' and 'he' is a much more elegant solution and one I shall adopt henceforth - with full acknowledgement given to you as my source of this solution.

I do hope you'll return to the blog.

Best wishes

Anonymous said...
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Kem said...

Hi, Catherine. I didn't notice your comment until just now. My punctuation practices actually follow MLA method, which requires that "inappropriate" punctuation appear within quotation marks. It took me a while to get used to it, but now I have a hard time doing it any other way. The MLA rule is basically that commas and periods appear inside quotation marks even if they were not part of the original quotation, whereas other punctuation marks (semi-colons, colons, exclamation marks, and question marks) appear outside. I don't pretend to understand the logic of this rule, but as someone who has been known to cast my eyes to the heavens in despair when my students don't bother to learn MLA method, I feel pretty strongly that I should follow it myself. However, you're perfectly right that it's a silly convention.

Catherine said...

Thanks for leaving the reply - and for addressing my one criticism. I take your point, but I will not subscribe to the notion that convention equates to correctness. I have the luxury of spending my days - and indulging my pendantry - among social scientists, who are all gratifyingly eager to be instructed in the correct use of quotation marks.

Despite my love of the English language, I have found my intellectual passions engaged far more by middle Welsh: English offers nothing so delightfully idiosyncratic as the Welsh improper relative clause...

Kem said...

Catherine: Wellllllll, okay, but let's go back to your example for a moment:

If you write, "It was however not a good day to die," I shall metaphorically flay you.

Now that I look at this passage more closely, I have realised that I am not simply relying on academic convention; I am relying on the conventions of written dialogue. Take this example from a book I have randomly pulled off a shelf just now:

"No, you wouldn't," Shan told her earnestly.

In dialogue, the final comma (which actually represents a period, as it marks the end of the character's statement) is always included within the quotation marks. The words "he wrote" call for the same rules as the words "he said." I can see where you might object to something like, "She was angry about George's comment on her 'stupid little brother,' but she held her tongue"; however, in the example I cite, I'm using the correct format in any method.

I do think that the comma-inside/comma-outside debate is a little bit unfair. I've learned one convention; you've learned another. I get a little ruffled when someone comes along and declares that every teacher and professor I have ever had has been wrong about this issue and that I am silly to heed them. It might also be noted that the convention differs between geographical regions. I'm in Canada, and we put our commas and periods inside the quotation marks. Perhaps we should therefore be shaken until our gums bleed, but ah well.

Though convention certainly doesn't always equate to correctness, neither does the deliberate shunning of convention. I do act like a raving prescriptivist at times, but I also see the benefit of being flexible and allowing people to function consistently within the conventions they have been taught. Just for instance, I tone down my vendetta against the passive voice when I am talking to scientists. I still think overuse of the passive makes a paper seem frustratingly vague, but I understand why scientists use it.

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