I feel like a marked man

Undergraduate examinations drive Tim Birkhead to the therapist's couch

February 25, 2010

I hate to say it, but I really dislike marking examination scripts. I'm not sure if this is unusual, but I feel I need some help...

Therapist: Lie down on the couch and tell me why you feel this way.

Me: I've just been asked to mark 500 essays in 24 hours. In principle I could do it, but it gives me only three minutes per script. Three minutes is barely enough time to decipher the unpractised scrawl that most undergraduates think of as writing, let alone write the paragraph justifying the mark I have awarded.

Each year the time frame gets shorter and shorter. There are more exams, more students and less time. Most of my colleagues are on teaching buyouts, so there are fewer and fewer of us to mark papers.

Therapist: Come, come. If that's all you are worried about, I cannot see the problem.

Me: It isn't. If only everything else would stop, I could just about manage one script every three minutes. But I have other marking, too: there are projects, dissertations and other coursework to assess, and then I have to second-mark or moderate the projects and dissertations of my colleagues. This year, for the first time, I even had to become a departmental secretary for a few hours and type all the marks into the departmental spreadsheet.

While all of this is going on, my email generator continues to work overtime - mainly with messages from undergraduates asking me to look at their CVs or write references for jobs (are they joking?). The most unsettling emails of all are those from the university itself. Only today I received an invitation to join the stress-management team, but I don't have time. Then there was one with the header "The vice-chancellor regrets" - the death of yet another colleague (who doubtless suffered a stroke while marking undergraduate scripts).

Therapist: Isn't this what being an academic is all about? Busy, busy, busy? And you have to realise that as the cuts to higher education get even closer to the bone, that sensation of what it means to be an academic will become so much more intense.

Me: But with so many different demands on my time, I worry about the quality of my teaching. I go to a lot of trouble to prepare material, but with less time and reduced morale it will be harder to do a good job. When I think of this I get depressed and worry that the undergraduates will think I am a rubbish teacher.

Therapist: You cannot discount that possibility.

Me: And another thing: I sometimes think I'm hallucinating while I'm marking. Is that normal? There's a very spooky effect I've noticed: I read a script, award a mark, write my little paragraph and then move on to the next script in the pile, only to have an overwhelming sense of deja vu. Exactly the same phrase, the same words, in the same order, in two - sometimes three - consecutive essays. Is it me, or is it them?

Therapist: Hmm. This does sound as though you are a bit stressed. Are you sure you aren't imagining this?

Me: No, I go back and check and there they are - the same words in consecutive essays. What's worse, they're actually my own words - they're the very words I used in the lecture course. The only thing I can think is that the students have recorded the lecture, shared the recording with their friends, revised together and then gone into the examination room together and sat one behind the other.

Therapist: Surely they are just copying each other in the exam?

Me: I'm also worried whether my summary paragraph justifying the mark I've given each script will satisfy the brain police (aka the external examiners), but not half so worried as I am about whether it would stand up in a court of law.

Therapist: Now you are being ridiculous. Students may be customers, but it will never come to that.

Me: Who's being ridiculous? I am also worried that, as a conscientious teacher teaching a popular subject, I get so much more marking than my colleagues who teach courses on things such as "Stomatal restructuring" or "Recreational use of the statistical package R".

Therapist: There have always been inequalities in teaching loads. Try to look at it in a positive light: at least you are popular.

Me: But all this marking and all this teaching is stopping me doing my research.

Therapist: Now, now. Look at it this way: you're never going to get another research grant anyway - at least not to do what you want. So just relax and enjoy the teaching - soon it will be the only position you have.

Me: Sob.

Therapist: Well, time is moving on and I have many other clients (from your own department), so let's wrap things up. There must be something about marking that you enjoy (apart from finishing).

Me: Funny you should mention that. There is. Just occasionally, I read an exam answer that blows me away. Someone has been to the lectures, done the required reading and understood what it was all about, and then written a staggeringly articulate, well-structured answer. Suddenly I'm feeling better ...

Therapist: I knew I'd sort you out. In its own way, marking is therapy.

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