On the Annoying Habits of Essay Markers
Russell Degnan

For a disturbingly high number of my subjects the essays assigned have an all too short word limit of 2000. Now, I write essays the same way I write computer programs, with a single statement supported by a logical sequence of arguments each of which is, in turn, supported by a heirachy of similar arguments. For short essays, with a necessarily broad question, as we are given, this means having a very shallow heirachy in the larger sense, building on broad, and often controversial ideas. You can ameliorate this somewhat, by not saying very much, by making the question more specific, or by blowing the word limit to pieces; but you are heavily constrained. To then recieve comments that seem to ignore these constraints is bewildering. If therefore, you are marking an essay, please desist from the following without good cause:

"Why didn't you talk about..." There may be times when this is appropriate; when I've made a large and embarassing omission of an author, event or idea central to the arguments I'm making. But unless it can be pointed out, within my essay, that addressing this omission would substantially change my argument, or that there is a school of thought that should have been mentioned that address a similar point, then it shouldn't be written. It certainly shouldn't be written on an essay where the question has been defined specifically to exclude discussion of a large and unwielding body of work; the inclusion of which, would make a mockery of the so-called 'word limit'.

"Your sources are..." "Too few" isn't something I get often, but again, it has to be assessed in the context of what is being written. Some authors have done a lot of research on a similar topic and can be drawn on heavily for facts and quotes. Some areas - such as Melbourne's early history - have very few primary sources, all of which are recycled endlessly. And it should never be assumed that a list of 'references' is the sum total of all reading done. As a rule it is normally well less than half what I have looked at.

"Mostly online" is one I did get. This is a reliability issue. If I'm dragging information from blogs then perhaps it would be reasonable. But if - as in this case - the sources are online versions of print journals, articles on websites of prominent authors, and Australian and international agencies then it is nonsense. You may as well remark that 'all your sources came from a library'.

"But couldn't it be said that..." Nothing wrong with this. I love to hear an alternative view. But before it is made could the marker make the courtesy of reading the whole essay. There are hundreds of ways to order an argument, and saying something that is in the next paragraph, or a few pages later, or worst of all, already said, is rude. Don't interrupt.

"Excellent. 4/5" I come from the scientific school, where marks are given for passing a hurdle, and removed for tripping over it. If you are marking my structure and you detect no discernable edifice then you can give zero and say so. If you mark it lacking in some way though, I'd like to know where. It was, last I checked, the reason for marking in the first place. Too often essay marking is seemingly arbitrary, overly harsh, or rushed. It is the only chance, often, when teaching to give feedback - particularly to the quiet people in a class - it needs to be done properly.

" " Same as above, but twice over.

"The question was about..." Actually, no it isn't. It is about whatever I said I'd talk about in the introduction; particularly if you've said in the tutorial that we can reinterpret the question to make it more specific. And if I have questioned the assumptions underpinning the question itself in that interpretation, then this comment shows a lack of comprehension on your part. If you had wanted to read the same series of dull cook's tours on a generic question then might I suggest the natural sciences.

"...was..." My grammar can be sloppy, is often archaic, but it is rarely obfuscatory. Years doing computer programming has made me very careful with my wording. There is an old rule on usenet that says that any spelling flame will invariably contain a spelling error. If you are going to correct me, could you do me the courtesy of, one, making sure you are right, and two, reading the sentence properly, instead of trying to rephrase it to say something else.

It is not just the annoying habits though. Universities place no value on undergraduates for a variety of reasons. This comes out in the marking and the teaching. Is it too much to write, "I don't agree with this because...", or "Try the works of X or Y, they talk about...". Essays as they are marked are the exam when you don't have an exam. A mere checklist of things to write about and do. The problems with that approach will have to be the subject of another essay, but suffice to say, it encourages teaching for 'credit' instead of for 'learning' and devalues an education.

Passing Fancy 17th July, 2004 17:27:19   [#]