Good marking has always been a question for the heart, not the brain

The pandemic reminds us that it is the marker’s job to err on the side of generosity

To date, the best mark I have received in my four-year degree is a 70. On a numerical basis, this is not true. But factor into the bald sum a calculation of emotion, and this is the mark which comes out at the end.

In April 2019, my father called me on a warmly lit evening, which I was spending reading in the garden. He had spoken a few days before of going to visit my grandmother, who was in hospital with breathing difficulties. He said that he was there with her now, and that she wanted to talk to me. She took the phone and spoke. “Christian, I am going to die.”

Her subsequent words would lose their precise gilding in print, but proceeded with the same force and gravity which this first sentence established. She had called to say goodbye, and she did so on her own, well-rehearsed terms. Once she had finished her valediction, my father took the phone back and apologised; she had sprung the speech on us both with éclat. Nanny did not, however, die. She remained stable, and after I had finished my last exam a few days later, I flew into Luton to visit her in hospital. When I arrived in her ward, I still had an essay to finish on that most despicable of writers, H. G. Wells. 

My grandmother died over the course of the weekend, and my essay extension request was denied.”

A deeply painful fortnight here set in. The first week was spent operating out of a house which was not my own so that I could better visit my grandmother in hospital, reviling the very idea that I might be asked to produce work under such conditions, and ultimately feeling disgusted at my inability to get over myself. I was counselled by my parents that this was not the way things should be, and on Friday I left on the train home, passing the stop for the hospital on my way. The second week was a shadowy imitation of the first. My grandmother died over the course of the weekend, and my essay extension request was denied.

Such disparate themes should never share a sentence like this, but always do. Because the suspicion was always lurking that I could best commemorate my grandmother’s death by not letting it affect me, I forewent the opportunity to defer and interred myself in a mound of literary-critical verbiage. The essay I produced by the end of this week was gravely eccentric, something strange almost to the point of being haunted, which of course I was. A large part of it was dedicated to the absurd act of counting occurrences of the word “sky” in Wells’s work, all to prove the — to me — obvious point that he is an hopelessly poor writer.  

An unusually piqued feeling of dread accompanied the publication of results that year. Foolishly, I had let time transmute my pessimism into something like optimism. Although I was deeply embarrassed by the essay I had produced, the faint hope always attended my thoughts that the marker would see through this parody of scholarship and understand the misdirected yet powerful energy which had gone into it. I held to this belief because I felt the price of my pain demanded a debt of understanding, even from people oblivious to it.

Every student should have a moment like this, where everything aligns in a form of cosmic justice.”

And yet, preposterous belief that it was, there it sat: the aforementioned 70. Not only this, but the marker’s notes could have been wrung from my own dreams. “I think I’m going to file this under ‘Heroic Failure,’” he begins. “There are many things that just don’t work.” He describes the essay as at times “confusing” and “judgemental”, alerts me to the perils of overwriting, and questions my monomania in excising almost anything by way of contrary opinion. He does, however, balance this criticism with praise of ambition and moments of originality, which he manages to sift out from the waste. Deciding, in the end, that the essay is difficult to give a mark, he says “I’m going to plump for a first, just because — well, very few essays are worth taking the time to disagree with!”

Every student should have a moment like this, where everything aligns in a form of cosmic justice. For me, it came at the perfect time, and shocked me into trusting the processes of writing and marking as never before. Importantly, I was satisfied that I had not defrauded the marker. He was acutely aware of the failings of my essay, but he had chosen to mark positively and merit what was meritorious, rather than penalise what was not.

At the same time, a friend received comments back for an essay on that most difficult of writers, James Joyce. Interestingly enough, they were comments written by an academic with equal experience and authority over their subject as the academic marking my Wells essay. But in this case, the feedback gave the recipient the feeling of being diminished and discouraged. The marker expressed their own disagreement as fiat, used sardonic implication where straightforward explanation would have been appropriate, and awarded an anomalously low mark in the context of the student’s wider transcript. 

Had I been on the receiving end of these comments, even at a stable point in my life, like most students, I would have had a difficult time recovering confidence after such punishing feedback. This is partly because the comments were intrinsically blunt, but also because they curtailed a dialogue between colleagues. In staging this type of rejection, the marker led the student to introspect on their own inadequacies, rather than encouraging them to seek help from specialists.

It all comes down to a question of how one stages the marker’s complex dialogue between judge, judgement and judged. One of popular culture’s enduring anxieties is with wrongful imprisonment: of being framed, falsely accused, and misjudged. The modern nomenclature expresses this ancient preoccupation as “being quoted out of context”. As much as any university can try to construct its own shared contexts of space, time, and purpose, the suffering peculiar to students is that the seam between life and college is never smooth, and the contexts which we operate within are ever disparate. 

“Most work produced by students originates in circumstances unknowable to the marker, and so participates in the anxious indignities associated with misquotation and false accusation.”

The student becomes framed for something they have not done: they are told they have not thought, or read, or revised, or essayed in a manner consistent with the principles of the discipline which they study, when often they are contending with something entirely extracurricular.

After a time, of course, the frame is positioned around the student long enough that they start to feel part of a true portrait rather than not of a false illusion. They begin to believe that they are indeed a fraud, that all the work they produce is inadequate, that the complications of their life are mere rationalisations to excuse shoddy scholarship, and that college is not for them. 

Inevitable as such a narrative sounds, this is only the case where an effort is not made by the department or the marker to apprehend the essence of the art which the student produces, which is not an art of perfection but an art of attempt. An attempt not just at scholarship but, as every university novel will tell you, at life itself. As there is no more universally inimical circumstance in recent history to advance an attempt than this, it must be hoped that the windows of the soul through which the marker sees the student will be thrown open as widely as the hinges allow.