The pre-sessional finished on Friday. This is a five-week course, the final one of the academic year, which prepares overseas students for study at a British university. Some five hundred students attended it. To pass, they didn’t need to do an awful lot beyond making sure their bum was on a seat for 80% of the course and meeting the deadlines for the essay and report. They needed to be present for the end-of-course tests, but were not called upon to actually pass them. Thus theoretically you could start the course, sleep through every session, balls up the listening, muff your presentation, dive-bomb on the reading, hand in a toilet roll just before the essay deadline, and emerge at the other end with a certificate. Of course nobody did that, and had anyone done so, they would have found a diplomatically understated comment on their certificate to the effect that this student is perhaps not quite ready for a university course yet. Even so, it was hard not to pass. For the five weeks I had a group of twenty-two students, most of them Chinese, and of the twenty-two, twenty-one were bright, hard-working, self-starting young people who got on well with one another and were a pleasure to teach. Then, of course, there was Sanjay.
Sanjay was from India and he arrived late, which automatically granted him an extension on the essay deadline. He was hardly ever seen in class, never on time when he did show up, and when physically present, very much in the class but not of it. Three days after his graciously extended essay deadline, he turned up at the mid-morning break to hand me the finished chef d’oeuvre, his deep thoughts on the institution of marriage. I told him I could not accept it. He was dismayed. He assumed a posture of supplication. He had attended the previous year's pre-sessional, he said, and not been allowed to proceed to his department, and could not wait another year, so please, please, please, would I accept his essay? Deadline’s past, mate, I gave him to understand. Can’t mark it, sunshine. But he had had so many problems in the UK, he said. He had had to move several times. His present landlord was a drunk who abused him. Before he could tell me that he had suffered an acute case of death but recovered just in time to finish his essay, I told him to go and see the course director. That’s how you deal with anyone who is being a pain in the butt and hogging your coffee break - let him hog hers instead.
I got to the course director before Sanjay did, to warn her of his impending visit, and that he had more sob stories prepared than Mills and Boon. She was already dealing with queues of Saudis who all needed to leave the course early due to the urgent problems of family members, usually involving their indisposition or impending or actual demise. Our Saudi students have more dead or moribund relatives, sick children and GP appointments per head than any other nationality. They are really quite extraordinarily prone to misfortune, especially towards the final week of any given course. Mam'selle la Directrice dealt firmly with them: they must bring in doctor’s notes, letters from their embassy, sputum samples or death certificates, and she’d think about it.
I thought how maddeningly obstructive and heartless we must appear to so many of these people. Deadlines especially appear ridiculous to many nationalities. Greek trainee teachers had great difficulty getting their heads round the idea. Why couldn’t we just mark their assignments as and when they decided they were ready? In a country where students drag out their degree courses for years, it seemed absurdly officious and inhumane of us to allow them only two weeks per assignment. On one occasion, the number of complaints from those who met deadlines about those who ignored them led us to ask the whole group to take time in part of the input session to thrash it out between them, no tutors to interfere. The deadline observers complained that the deadline ignorers were taking unfair advantage, spending three weeks or more on their essays when the observers were only taking the specified two. The deadline ignorers agreed, and so more fool the observers. The argument was never resolved, and given that Cambridge ESOL, (quondam UCLES) who moderated the course were such a bunch of pussies, we had absolutely no way to enforce compliance.
Eventually I did read and mark Sanjay’s essay, and it took me five minutes - two to ascertain that it was 100% plagiarised, two to satisfy my curiosity as to the source (Times Online - impeccable) and one to wonder yet again if he really thought I could be fooled so easily.
The five hundred students have now gone. Tomorrow the place will be silent, except for our handful of Algerian pilots. As from Tuesday I get a week off, and for the coming term I have only two days teaching a week so far, which isn’t enough to live on. I’m off to Athens for a week training teachers in October and another in November, two stints planned originally as busman’s holidays but now a real necessity. I might spend a month or so there in the new year if things don’t pick up at the university, although I’m pretty sure they will. I ought to be worried, I suppose, but I’m not. There’s a whole lot of goofing-off time ahead, and I’m not complaining.