As Henry Higgens laments in his infamous parody of Shaw's still-known-but-not-so-infamous prelude to Pygmalion: “why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?”. I suppose in my case “why can’t Americans teach their children how to write?” is more to the point, but it messes with the rhythms and intonation enough that it’s not nearly as catchy.
Job number one (though depending on the day, any of the three jobs could be “job number one”) is as a grader for aforementioned Best Professor in the World (who, for the sake of propriety in case a member of the class should stumble upon these writings, will remain unnamed in this post… though a little detective work will lift my thin veil of professionalism and of course you could always just ask me). The first stack of grading for this year is in and folks, it’s a doozy.
The class is an eighty-person undergrad lecture on Eighteenth-century British lit. It’s a three hundred level course which means that it’s pretty much English majors only. I must admit that I’m not entirely familiar with Rutgers’ prerequisite system, but I should imagine that (in theory) anyone could really take the class given enough administrative red-tape-cutting. For the sake of demographics, it’s a fair assumption to say that these individuals are in their second or third year of college and, if not majors, at least have a marked interest in the subject matter.
The good: I have one paper in the batch (so far, I’m about three quarters of the way through them) that’s a solid “A”. This kid knows what he’s doing, he’s got a great argument, even though the assignment isn’t a heavily weighted one in terms of their final grade he obviously put some thought and time into it. Getting a paper like this, especially after having graded most of his peers’ papers, is like breathing fresh air after being stuck in a Gollumesque cave for ten years. I wanted to find the boy, give him a great big hug and say “thank you for taking this seriously and making my time worthwhile.” I truly hope he goes far in academia.
The bad: Talk about a bell curve, I would say the majority of these papers are barely passable. It is clear to me that the students threw them together in an evening without even giving them a second read-through. Nothing makes me twitch more than a student who obviously pounded something out and didn’t even bother to go over it again. My time is valuable. Despite loving this grading gig, it makes me feel used and abused when students pass in perfunctory work (as a note, I think I’ve used the word “perfunctory” in the end notes for these things more times than I can really count). Moreover, it makes me feel as though the students are disrespecting their Professor, a man who I have infinite degrees of respect and adoration for. Sure, my time is valuable, but his is even more so. He’s a learned man, publishes all fricken time, always has projects coming out of his ears, I mean this guy makes me look like a slacker. In addition, he’s an amazing professor. He knows his stuff, he knows how to get along with students, and he knows how to teach. The students disrespecting this man makes me want to wander into the classroom and lay the holy smack-down touting a Norton Anthology of British Literature in one hand and an unabridged OED in the other (not that I could really carry such a thing, but the thought of using it as a weapon makes me happy). Seriously kids. Get it together. If you can’t learn from this man, you can’t learn from anyone.
The ugly: While I haven’t run into any purposeful plagiarism yet (usually we’re lax about quotation form for the first few assignments of the semester, so while technically quoting improperly is considered plagiarism we draw the students’ attention to it and let it slide for now), I do have at least two kids who did a copy and paste job. They didn’t try to pass the work off as their own (I mean, when it’s the OED you’d have to be a world class idiot to try), but they didn’t put any of their own work into the paper. I hate failing people, and I know aforementioned professor doesn’t feel any better about it than I do. For both of our sakes, just put an hour into this assignment and you will pass. You won’t do well as some of your peers, but at least you won’t hang guiltily on our consciences.
Honestly, the single thing that students can do to improve their English grades is simply re-reading their papers before turning them in. Just give them a once-over. I promise you will catch something that you didn’t see before, and that something is one less thing a grader will notice to mark you down on. I would say, given my experience as a grader and writing tutor, that the average student paper will go up by at least half a letter grade if given nothing more than a second glance before being turned in. Most of the problems that I notice in prose fall into one of three categories: typos, redundancy, and clarity. Typos are sometimes hard to catch, but I see many more blatant typos than subtle ones. Homonym use is only rarely an issue for students at this level, and when it is generally said student is aware of the issue. Fixing redundancy is a matter of reading and saying “oh look, I already said that”. That’s it. Sometimes redundancy an effort on the student’s part to add length to a paper with a page or word minimum, but in that case the student is better off not repeating himself anyway. It may be half a page short, but at least the quality will go up significantly. Clarity is also an easily fixed issue. Half the time when typing something the fingers work faster than the mind can. As a result, students will begin one sentence and end it entirely differently, leave out words, etc. Fixable. Easily fixable.
What kills me is that this doesn’t take any writer’s know-how to do. All it takes is a little effort and diligence. I understand that the average college student can be under a great deal of pressure from a great deal of angles, but that understanding only goes so far. With three jobs, full-time school, a blog, a novel project and a social life, I still find a way to re-read my work. They can’t tell me they don’t have ten minutes to give a two-page double-spaced assignment a once over.
In any case, I’m sitting here staring glumly at several failing papers and even more cursory jobs which will earn a C or C minus. I’m hoping that my notes on them will prove useful, but the realist in me says that the students will do what I did when I was in undergrad: ignore the notes, flip the paper to the last page, and look for the circled grade then throw the paper away without a second glance. If nothing else, the grading process has at least taught me to appreciate the value of a good end note.
I wish I could just shake these kids. I wish that would make a difference. I know they are smarter than this even without having met them. I guess all I can hope for is an overall improvement over the course of the semester, but I won’t hold my breathe.