The Matriculated Marker: On being both student and teacher

“Here, in college… you were supposed to imitate the teacher in such a way as to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of the instruction and going ahead with it on your own. That got you A’s. Originality on the other hand could get you anything – from A to F. The whole grading system cautioned against it.”

Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Last weekend, I set about the task of marking my students’ dissertations. I went to a trendy but usually quiet cafe (there are lots of these around the North West of Northern Ireland, and they usually have identical menus) and after a pot of tea had passed I still hadn’t finished marking even one of them. The bearded barista, clearly a perceptive young man, offered me a refill gratis. “Thank you,” I said, adding darkly “It’s dissertation time.”

When I went to pay, one dissertation and an iced lemon slice later, he asked me what my dissertation was about. After a few seconds of confused flashbacks (I am six months post-viva and haven’t been asked that question in a while) I said “Oh no, it’s not mine. I’m a lecturer.”

“Ooof,” he said. “That’s a little above my pay grade.”

My last paycheque popped archly into my head and I thought ‘Yes, mine too.’

I do not enjoy marking. I know plenty of people who find it tedious, who feel exasperated when their students’ grasp on the material is tenuous, whose financial resources are stretched by poorly-paid hourly contracts that don’t cover marking. In fact, I share all of these frustrations. But there is one factor in particular that I balk at every time. I feel I am too close to the other side of the door. I have too recently felt myself at the mercy of a marker.

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

I have always been anxious about grades. I had my first panic attack about a maths test at the age of nine. When I applied to university, I pinned the letter outlining the requisite exam results on my wall and stared at them for several minutes when I woke up in the morning to set me up with a good dose of terror for the day. When I got a B, my only B of the year, in my favourite Honours module, I was convinced I had been deluded about my ability to a Masters degree and took to bed for a week. This doesn’t make much sense, because I am reasonably talented, very hardworking, and surrounded by supportive people, but there we are. Now that I am on the other end of the red pen (which is actually a blue pen because red just feels so judgemental) it’s not better.

It’s not the feedback I mind. Feedback feels conversational. With feedback, I feel like there is something to develop. With a grade, however… it’s so final. That’s it. This is what the work amounts to. This is something of a falsehood, however: grades are not good feedback, and they are not good markers of learning. They are a subjective numerical interpretation of the merits and limitations of one specific piece of work.

I’m also aware that some students (read: me) have a tendency to project the meaning of the grade (“This is what this work is worth”) onto themselves (“This is what am worth”). Clearly they should not do this. Grades are not indicative of an individual’s potential, either as a student or as a human being. I worry that I am doing a disservice to my students’ pastoral care by not having these conversations with them, but unfortunately I have neither the time nor the resources to do so. Such is the nature of casual academic employment.

I was fascinated recently to read tweets by Jesse Stommel, neatly summarised in a blog post, about why he doesn’t grade his students. Now, I obviously don’t have that option – I am working within the limits of someone else’s module, under a university’s particular code of practice. But there was such food for thought there. I know how well my students are likely to do in their graded work simply by observing them in class. I particularly love what he has to say about creative learning outcomes, because I discuss learning outcomes a lot in my class and they always feel so rigid. This is in part a response to a student culture that has glommed onto grades and how to achieve them as a core of their worth. Imagine the student culture we could have if, instead of setting the outcome that they should be able to describe the nature of autobiography in the context of slave narratives, the outcome was flexible and reflected the often emotional conversations that come out of that particular seminar. I’d argue that this would lead to a better overall understanding for the need to tell one’s own story.

His key point, however, is that this process is both emboldened by and down to the fact that he is a “better, more confident teacher” than he was when he was issuing grades. For me, that feels slightly out of reach. I guess I’m just in a slightly fragile state after nine years of further education spent overvaluing grades. Having recently taken a break from full-time academia, I’m learning to value my knowledge and skills in a slightly different but altogether healthier way. I wonder where I would be if I’d known how to do that sooner? That’s what I want for my students: the empowerment to know who they are free from the report card or transcript.

By the way, all three dissertations were fabulous.


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