Friday, 31 July 2009


I’m feeling a bit of a rotter at the moment, not entirely logically, as I have done nothing unkind. This weekend just gone, I marked nineteen or so essays from my students. Some were crap, some were good and most were fair to middling. I am a generous, perhaps over-generous marker, always aware of the size of the challenge people face in trying to write in a language not their own, and attempting to adopt ways of selecting, ordering and evaluating information that are quite unfamiliar to them. Chinese student, it’s be have difficult write English many: part of speech, auxiliary verb, mistake high frequency in writing by confusion with. Thus an essay can take a fair bit of decoding.

A young man called Siming (say ‘Shirr Ming’) gave me 2000 words on ‘Globalisation’. Sorry, mate, that’s brought you down a notch or two before we even start; the limit was 1500 words, we don’t grade essays by weight. The title, which I have forgotten now, was a fair bit more detailed than that as well. At first I dismissed the essay as a piece of impenetrable translatese, as reader is be have problematic follow, on account of because syntax was have shot to buggery, vocabulary choice to cock in addition big time also. Then I re-read it. With patience, you could just about follow what the lad was trying to say, and discern an attempt to organise the material. You could see he had put a lot of effort into finding the information, interpreting it and getting his ideas and conclusions down on paper. It must have taken him ages; a hell of a lot of hard work in what is for him a very foreign language. I was tempted to award marks for sheer effort. After all, some students don’t scruple to copy and paste from websites or pay some third party to write their essays for them.

Unfortunately, his essay fails. Everyone at the standardisation meeting agreed, the rotten buggers. When Siming goes into his department in October, no tutor will devote any time to construing his essays the way we do in our little antechamber to the university – they’ll simply dismiss them as incomprehensible straight away. So sorry, sunshine, you get 40%. Galling, innit? Especially when the lady I mentioned last week got away with a heavily plagiarised piece just because there was no way of proving once and for all that she was not the writer.

Siming was glum but accepted that the essay was not up to snuff. I bigged up his progress in the six weeks he has been in England and pointed to the marks but not the names of several people in the group whose grades were lower than his after six months here. Even so, not coming out with top marks leaves a dent in the young male ego, and he left very deflated.


Today all the marks for the tests were calculated and announced. It was bedlam, with students in search of their tutors knocking on the teachers’ room door to pester us while we were frantically rifling through papers and clattering on keyboards.

‘Sarah is here?’ the umpteenth young Saudi in ten minutes would ask, surveying the obviously Sarahless room.

‘Does it bleeding well look like it? Can you see her? Maybe she’s hiding in the filing cabinet; I’ll just check, shall I? No, definitely not in the filing cabinet, I expect she’s gone to the ladies. Do you want me to go and drag her out, or can you hang on until we post the results outside the office?’

‘Sarah is not here?’

A young man comes looking for me. I have never seen him before. He flashes me an astonishing movie-star smile, and says ‘I am Fahad.’

This rings a bell. It’s the name on the register I have never been able to put a face to. He missed the entire course because he’s been back to Saudi Arabia to have his teeth fixed, but he returned, as promised, for the assessment. I get a print out of his results, which predictably are not good. His presentation had been given 30 percent. He is not pleased, and says so. He had missed the course, had he not, and had therefore not been taught those ‘many teckerniques’ for giving presentations that had otherwise guaranteed his success. He seems to think that he should have been awarded the grade he might have got had he actually been present for the last five weeks. In your dreams, sunshine, I give him to understand.

Next, we have a look through his essay, and I point out its chief failings: repetition, want of direction, general pointlessness. I had numbered what I took to be the main ideas in his introduction.

‘But my teacher have said me, I must not write numbers!’

No, son, I wrote them there so I could sort out the strands of the essay, over-optimistically, as it appears. Where do you provide an action plan?

‘I say this, here’ he says, affronted, rifling through the essay. ‘Here, also. Maybe too here. I write this things, you can look them here.’

Sorry, I tell him. I have to be able to read and follow without the need to consult you at every turn. Your teeth are to die for, but your essay sucks ass. Eventually he decides to take his print out and pester the course leader about it, which gets him off my back, and I know he’ll get equally short shrift from her.

I got off lightly today, really. One student was so displeased with his results that he had a tantrum, and blamed his teacher. ‘Why Adam hate me so much!?!?!?!’ Anyway, it’s Friday, I am going up the Tobie Norris for a few glasses of Merlot with a friend, and I have all next week off, so ELT can go hang.


Bo said...

That was hilarious!!

I have a student who insists on writing in the style of Walter Pater.

Enjoy the merlot---you deserve it. Talking of which...the sun is over the yardarm...

vilges suola said...

Thanks, Mark! Be grateful you have a student who can write in a recognisable style, as Chinese student, many times hard work very decipher talk about subject, style, it's not give monkey's about.

I enjoyed the Merlot very much. Hope you enjoyed whatever you had at the appropriate hour.

Mediterranean kiwi said...

i've had students telling me what mark to give them, so that tey can remain above a certain standard and be allowed into the next year...

vilges suola said...

Me too. I found the prevalent idea in Greece at all levels of education was that payment of fees should in itself be sufficient to guarantee progress. When I first started teaching on ELT training courses in Athens, I had to interview dozens of applicants whose first question about the course would be 'do I have to attend all of it?'

Anonymous said...

You have to be cruel to be kind....

We have adults at our course whose upward progress depends as to whether they have a job or not. Very difficult when you are playing with someone's livelihood, especially a married man with kids. But for the integrity of the course, you can hedge and blur the line.

Understand your dilemmas.


vilges suola said...

It does no favours for these students if we are overgenerous and allow them to go into their various departments thinking their English is better than it really is. I just felt sorry for this particular kid as he had worked much harder on his essay than some of the others who scraped a pass.

zoi makri said...

A student of mine, not a good one, came to the lesson feeling really sure that his essay was the best ever. When I told him that it didn't make any sense and I could barely understand what he was trying to say in it, he said "Oh, you don't know your job at all, do you?". Amazed at this comment I asked "Why do you say so?" and he replied "I can understand everything in my essay. If you can't, then you need to improve your English!". Comments like this one, make me feel happy that some of my students are not that good!

Vilges Suola said...

What a cheek. How did he account for the fact that you are the teacher, not him?


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