I carted two boxes of essays home this week. It’s marking time again, and the sight of those boxes in the hall fills me with gloom, particularly since the weather always starts to improve in May and makes you want to spend more time in the garden. I’ve tried marking outdoors, but it never works very well. Either it’s too hot and the essays are so boring that you fall asleep, or a breeze gets up while you’re inside making a cup of tea and you come out to find half the papers spread around the bushes. I’ve had cats pee on essays, drinks spilt on essays and once had to dry out a couple of dozen when there was an unexpected downpour while I was in the loo.
Essay-marking is one of those crosses that academics still carry, especially if we are in what someone recently described as paper-based subjects. Friends in other fields seem to have more interesting lives, assessing group projects, web pages, Facebook entries and all sorts of random stuff; but I get essays, year in, year out.
When I was young and idealistic, I painstakingly read every word, which was no mean feat because so many of the damned things were handwritten. Older, more worldly-wise colleagues advised against this practice, proffering the old “you can tell if it’s a 2:1 by reading the first page and a half” adage, which I spurned as unethical. But these days that’s exactly what I do: I whip through the first page and a bit, read the conclusion, skim the odd section in the middle and make sure there’s a tick on every page to show the thought police that I have at least turned every sheet over. My covering note uses phrases from a now established repertoire of essay-comment-speak, endlessly recycled. It’s comforting when you go off to act as an external examiner somewhere to see that this kind of sub-language seems to be in general use, a bit like the headmistress’s comments on my old school reports: “Gloria has been working well this term, though could try harder to concentrate in lessons”, or “Gloria could achieve much more if only she applied herself more conscientiously to the task in hand” or “Gloria is too easily distracted, which is reflected in these less-than-welcome results.”
What do you say about an essay that starts off with a sentence such as “Oliver Cromwell was an exceptional Roundhead”? You know for certain that it’s going to be downhill all the way after an opening line like that. And as for the one that informed me that “the Thirty Years’ War lasted for 30 years” – you might just as well invite the cat to pee on it by putting it in the litter tray on purpose. But the biggest problem with essay-marking these days is not the sheer volume of paper that you have to wade through or the silliness of some of the answers, which at least breaks the monotony; rather, it’s the anxiety created by the suspicion that much of what you’re ploughing through is plagiarised.
“As for the one that informed me that “the Thirty Years’ War lasted for 30 years” – you might just as well invite the cat to pee on it”
Some plagiarism is easy to spot: a semi-literate piece of writing suddenly starts to read like something written by Martin Amis, so you know it’s been pinched from somewhere. Some really dim students plagiarise from set text. One student even plagiarised something I’d written, and when challenged expressed astonishment that the author G. Monday was me. “I never thought you’d have written that. I thought it was a really good piece,” the cheeky young sod declared. I gave him a mark of zero, which didn’t stop him getting a good 2:1 because he appealed and won on the grounds that I hadn’t recognised his learning disability and hadn’t made clear that G stood for Gloria. I argued that cheating wasn’t seen as a learning disability in my neck of the woods, but the ruling went against me because my boss didn’t want to draw attention to the vast amount of plagiarism going on all the time in case the senior management made him spend time proving it all when he could have been heading off on holiday.
Providing proof of plagiarism is the devil’s own job. It takes hours, and some students are so skilled at plagiarism that you just can’t track down the sources at all. There’s a whole industry out there, too – anyone can order essays via the internet just like ordering the weekly groceries, but probably more cheaply. I used to try to devise cunning essay questions that would require decent answers and minimise cheating, but I ran out of ideas. Now I just recycle the questions and plagiarise myself.
Gloria Monday is a mid-career historian employed in one of the many universities with aspirations to international greatness.