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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Postgraduate Diary: Making and Taking Criticism

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

One of my favourite tasks of the academic year took place last week, when I handed back my first-year students' first essays. At my university, we are lucky enough still to have a system whereby each student has an individual fifteen minute slot with their tutor, in which the tutor returns the marked essay and explains and discusses its positive and negative points. Obviously, this is a massively intensive use of teaching resources, compared to tutorials (one teacher to eight students) or lectures (one tutor to several hundred). It is also massively useful, both for the tutors and for the students.

In the case of the latter, who are coming to our university with straight A-grades, it can often be shocking suddenly to find that they have gone from getting many ticks on their work from a school teacher who thinks the world of them, to having scrawls of red corrective pen applied condemnatorily by a tutor who has known them for a couple of hours. Shockingly, it is possible for an A-level English Literature student to get 100%; and to have met our standard entry criteria, all our students will have achieved higher than 80%. So to get their first essays back with a mark of 60% (a mere 60%!) can be quite a shock to the system. I know it was to me. With the handback sessions, however, we get to alleviate these concerns, to assure them that a 2.1 is perfectly normal for their stage of work: after all they are three years from becoming graduates, and three months from being school pupils. When put in context in the handback session, that corrective red pen is less a condemnation of where they are at, than a prompt to look at areas in which they need to improve, if they are to realise their potential and achieve a First.

For my part, the handbacks are beneficial because I get to have an individual meeting with my students, in which I can find out how work really is going (cutting through the mumbled happiness that comes across in a tutorial group at 9.00 on a Monday morning), I learn a little bit about their background and other interests, and I get to talk to them as individuals. It is after the first round of essay handbacks that I finally start to remember student's names, and put names to faces, which has a beneficial effect on tutorials, preventing me from seeming like some anonymous voice of divine wisdom. And, without wanting to sound too arrogant, when a student comes in feeling nervous about how they have performed, and goes out knowing precisely what they did well and what they need to work on to do better in their second essays, I feel like I am making a real difference to them, intellectually and emotionally.

But if this is the high point of my postgraduate life, one of the lows must be getting negative feedback on one's own work. It is one thing for an A-Level student let down by a weak exam system to come to university unable to write grammatical sentences; it is another for a PhD student to suffer the same humiliating corrections to their style. Luckily, grammar is not one of my weak points, and although I occasionally write an over-long sentence with too many embedded clauses, this is a mark more of failed ambition than of limited capability. However, my supervisor is a fast reader, but a close marker, and any misspellings or errors will not escape her red pen, just as I hope none of my students escape mine (there is something faintly hubristic about the experience of marking).

But, in case the reader thinks I am getting a little vain, I must cut myself down to size. Although happily now I am able to write to a technically high standard, it was not always the case. Although most of the essays on The Pequod were written in the last couple of years, a few of the essays were written as undergraduate assignments (the bottom seven on the Essays page). That there are so few is partly because my computer crashed in my second year, so I lost quite a lot of work, and partly because I only put on those essays which were actually any good, both in my opinion and in the eyes of those who marked them. The exception is my essay on "The Representation of Memory in Time's Arrow and Shame." Written in my second year, I got a low 2.1 for this essay, and I was pretty upset, because I had thought I was writing in a very advanced way. Contrary to my principles, I decided to put this one online to spite my tutor, rather than for grander principles of public education.

But my vindictiveness has come back to haunt me. Through my Statcounter, I discovered that an English Instructor at the University of West Georgia has given her students a link to my essay in their reading assignments, and asked them to critique it in class. Through Google I discovered some of their presentations and responses were also published online. In the same response my tutor might conceivably have had, one of these complained that:
the author [sic] thoughts were confusing. He made random points that were not valuable to his argument. We believe the intended reaction was to inform the reader of the importance of time and narration in the story. Yes because we were too confused to understand the point author was trying to get across.
How dearly I would love a handback session with these students! Although, actually, on re-reading the essay, their points are valid. Whilst some of the other responses were more complimentary, I have to admit that the argument does appear highly convoluted, with structural weaknesses both at the level of sentences (winding and long-winded) and of the essay as a whole. Finding my original essay plan, at 6000 words I expect I probably had too much information, and a too-passionate desire to disseminate all my knowledge, rather than succinctly presenting a briefer but more coherent argument (a comment that could have been lifted from one of several of the handback forms I distributed to my own students last week).

Whereas when I received my mark at the time I was a little horrified (and clearly still am, given my drive to publish it online when I launched The Pequod in 2004), I can now look back laconically. I can appreciate the flaws in the essay, safe in the knowledge that, in my second year of a PhD, I would not write in such a way today. And I can laugh at the irony that, a week after I return work to my students, here is an English postgraduate in the United States, probably the same age as myself, giving her undergraduate students my old undergraduate essay to read, and then publishing their comments on my work online. Oh, what incestuous circles we English literature students weave and wander in.

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Posted by Alistair at 11:39 am


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