Monday, November 21, 2005

Red Pen At The Ready

I’m stuck under a mound of marking at the moment. In truth, I’m mainly stuck under it because I spend an awful lot of time not doing it, and instead allowing the load to get slightly heavier every couple of days, pinning me underneath even more so. With it comes a return of a feeling I’d pretty much left behind since finishing being a student: that nagging guilt you get when you are watching telly, leisurely eating your dinner or even sleeping, that you should really be doing something more important. Today’s mass of free time was largely occupied with meeting Housemate Reggae for the mother of all Chinese all-you-can-eat buffets at lunch, and then spending the remainder of the afternoon tottering around feeling peculiar. Productive? Perhaps not, but at £3.80 a go I can live with that sort of dyspepsia and the guilt.

Of that which does feel the wrath of my red pen, much of it gets done on the bus to and from work. Occasionally I spare a second to pity the kids who are going to have to try and decode my angry scrawlings. My handwriting isn’t super at the best of times, and the contribution made to my unique brand of calligraphy by the 91 bus alternately sharply braking and then barrelling along Caledonian Road does little to help.

One thing that is getting to me though is the surprising standard of some of the work that’s coming my way. Well, okay, maybe I need to clarify that. There’s the whole spectrum of standards I’d expect, from the clueless few who clearly don’t yet know what’s expected of them, through to the blatant party animals who maybe spare a mere 3 hours the night before on anything they churn out, through to those already producing the sort of work of such a decent quality that I could never hope to match it, so just meekly litter it with knowing ticks and write "good" next to the bits that don’t go completely over my head. So no, it’s not so much the standard of work that surprises me. More it’s the standard of some of the students my university lets in.

I need to be discrete and a little cautious here, as this is potentially something of a delicate subject, but my university (which will remain nameless) has a fairly high ratio of international students: around 1 in 5. This is a feature common to many British universities, and undoubtedly makes for an interesting and diverse mix, but I don’t think anyone would accuse you of being overly cynical if you wondered out loud how much this has to do with seeking out a broad ranging student body for academia’s sake and how much it has to do with finances. You see, when you consider that currently my university typically charges its British and EU students £1175 for the year* whereas a student hailing from outside of such locales can be looking at annual fees of £20,000 for certain courses, it’s not a huge leap before you find yourself wondering about the motivations of our underfunded universities wanting to attract such students.

But this is fine I suppose. After all, we like to consider ourselves a global seat of learning. But at the same time, we shouldn’t forget that at the same time we are a global seat of learning which operates from and exists within the United Kingdom, and with that comes certain requirements.

I’ll cut to the chase here: some of the written English I am having to mark is frankly appalling. Go and click the Next Blog button up there and soon enough ur sUur 2 cum aX sum orfal Xarmpulls ov. ritan iNglish, but the blogosphere is one thing. Essays and the like at a University which likes to favourably compare itself with Oxbridge are quite another.

Obviously, I’m not dealing with anything that bad, but I am dealing with students where it is very obvious English is not their first language and they aren’t particularly adept at writing it. A lot of my students really jumble their tenses or word order, don’t know the difference between ‘was’ and ‘is’ and don’t know when to apply the definite article. I’m not being a prescriptivist here; some of their work is genuinely hard to comprehend. And I’m expected to mark work which is supposed to be of a standard expected of a student at a top British university: I can’t really let these things slip because it’s frankly not the required standard and there are students here, both those with English as a first language and those for whom it is a second or third, who are producing work as it should be.

And at the same time, I’m not there to teach grammar. Whilst I can highlight errors, I don’t have the time to explain to these students why when they refer to a group of people it is "they", not "he". And most strikingly, I shouldn’t have to. I don’t blame these students for their limited grasp of written English, because they applied to our university - as can anyone in the country or anyone in the world - and they got through. It’s not the responsibility of the applicant to be up to the task, it’s up to those selecting the applicants to choose those who have the skills that will be necessary. Nor do I begrudge the university seeking out foreign students: not only do they produce a nice financial earner, but I think we should be seeking out the intellectual cream from across the world to advance our research and standing. However, in the face of all that ready wonga I do sometimes think some of the students we select might be at the expense of those who are more able, be they British or otherwise, who we aren’t trying hard enough to recruit. And admitting below par students only serves to bring the value of everyone’s degree down, regardless of how proficient or inadequate each student is.

All this said, I’m not allowed near the finalists (they are too important). Perhaps we do do our jobs, and over the course of those first two years these students manage to equip themselves so that by the time they graduate they have perfect English.


*due to increase of course


Chris said...

Here here. Spot on Huw, as ever. We're witnessing a commercialised education right here in the UK. As for 'teacher time' its a total bitch and I hate that nagging sensation that there is something better you should be doing - but as a friend once pointed out there's ALWAYS something better you should be doing. The best piece of advice anyone gave me (from Mike strangely enough, with his two teacher parents) is 'You can't do it all... ever'

Jona said...

You and my BH would get on so well! He was in a right tiz the other day when he got a mail from a lecturer in text speak - as if the students don't wind him up enough ;o)

Banksy said...

"Here here"?

Is that meant to be ironic?

Becca said...

after weeks of secret reading i am coming clean!

i totally agree with your sentiment today. i work at one of the lesser universities in London and much the same as yours we have a wide international student population. i would just like to add that along with the appalling grammer it would be nice to talk to a UK student who doesn't start each sentence with "basically what it is, yeah.." and finish it with "d'ya get me" or "innit". Especially when you are talking to someone with a thick jamaican accent and you know full well that the most tropical place they've ever been is Center Parcs. Bless them.

end rant

AnonymousCoworker said...

I may be revealing too much here, but at one point I worked for a university and was responsible for grading student assignments.

I was appaled by the students who spoke English as a first language.

That may be a reflection on the US educational system though.

Me Over Here said...

I, for one, thoroughly enjoy your handwriting. I think it has character.

Chris said...

You know. There are some states here in the good ol' US of A that actually have placed a bit of a ban on teachers using red ink. I present to you Exhibit A. So, maybe they're not bad at written English but are merely suffering traumas from the jagged red ink?

I'd be tempted to write 'Redrum' at the top of each page, in that case.

mona said...

I honestly think that communicating what you learn properly is important. How good their their level of English is, in my opinion, depends on what they're studying. I think you need a better level of English for courses such as Sociology, Commerce, Psychology etc..where you write a lot of essays and where grasping the various nuances between terms is important. If they're in Biology or Math, they obide by somewhat international languages and refer to latin terms most of the time anyway...coming from France, I know that a lot of my fellow frenchies have an awful level of english and it's impossible to actually hold a conversation with them. It's pretty sad. Good luck to you tough, correcting all those papers n'all.

Afe said...

Jumble their word order do they? Yoda perhaps you are marking... be too harsh, do not.

Or feel his light sabre through your skull, you may.

y-vonne said...

Coming from an officially bilingual country we often have issues even when the individual is Canadian. It is completely likely that a francophone will apply to an anglophone university in an attempt to improve their level of written communication. Using of instead of have "They of the papers" becomes a sentence that I can understand, despite the obvious grammar challenges.

At what point in life does what you are saying become more important than how you say it? As a policy writer, strong in English, I can only ask that people overlook my obvious sub par level of French and look to the fact that I have some value to add. Or not. :-)

Lippy said...

The standard of a university education needs to be at a suitably high enough level so that it isn't producing a plethora of degree'd pretenders. Furthermore, that standard shouldn't be apologised for, or compromised, as that would defeat the point of having such an education. Surely.

Hel Fire said...

i'm at university and i see lots of other students mixing up "of" and "have" (e.g. "i could of gone out last night if i had enough money"), or "there", "their" and "they're". these are people who speak english as their first language!
i've also got a friend in sixth form who will go to uni next year and she used to have excellent grammar and she spoke properly, then she moved to london and since then she ends literally every sentence with "innit". it actually gets quite annoying after a bit...
i'd hate to be a marker, i sometimes struggle to read my mates' writings, so good luck to you!