Thursday, August 25, 2005

Masters' Students and the Bizarre English Way of Marking

25 August 2005--Kalamata, Greece

I received a text on my cell phone yesterday from a master's student to say he had finished his dissertation (thesis). I wouldn't have to read the final draft as he'd already submitted it. I was immensely relieved; schlepping down to an internet cafe to scour through his twelve thousand words written in a breathless prose is not something that energetically wrenches me from the beach.

Not that it matters. I am his supervisor and so I grade it. I've always found the British university system of grading and marking to be byzantine in its workings. Let's start with the most simple way: Professor constructs a course; teaches it; creates exam; students write exam; professor grades exams between 0 and 100% and if the class is large enough, uses a curve; finish. This is the way it is done in the US and other places. Now let us look at the British way of exams.

Lecturer thinks of module (there are no courses now, but only "modules"--ugly word but apposite); lecturer composes module outline according to university guidelines for modules which includes learning outcomes and aims and objectives (whatever the difference may be); lecturer seeks approval for module from module approving committee which may ask for aims and objectives to redrafted more rigorously; lecturer seeks re-approval and enlists teaching team for module; team teaches module; team sets exam paper; students write exam; teaching team ponders marking guidelines for class level of students; first lecturer marks papers; second lecturer marks papers; each will be aware that although marking scale is nominally zero to one hundred, any mark over 75% will be frowned on by others and probably reduced, nor do lecturers understand what a curve is; two lecturers meet to discuss differences in marks and arrive at compromise; selection of papers--highest grades, some in middle, fails--are sent to lecturer in another university who has agreed to be external examiner; "external" looks at papers and drafts small report about standards; next exam board meets with external to review marks of students for that year, adjust grades by looking at students' other modules (known, I think, as compensation), and takes several hours to accomplish; exam board reconstitutes itself, external leaves, as conferment board to award passes; grades published.

I must apologise for the tedious length of the British description. There's no doubt it is an unjustifiable, appalling wast of time. Bureaucratic administrators adore it since it makes them feel important and of course they are the keepers of the rules, which are constantly tinkered with to align them with the holy ideal, whatever it actually is. British academics spend hours and more on this tortuous process without ever questioning its efficacy. They are believers. In part, they are trying to make themselves appeal proof from aggrieved students, in others it boosts their self-confidence.

The alternative? Get on with some real work. Do that research that's been waiting for the summer break. Of course, after this obstacle course, there is no summer break. And university administrators, as I have suggested before, are incapable of appreciating the intellectual; they must control and verify everything. Finding ways of consuming time is a bureaucrat's delight. When all is accounted for, there's nothing to worry about. Perhaps what is most worrying is that British academics have incorporated this self-audit function so completely that they are incapable of seeing through the sham.

The process that I have described is a combination of tradition and compliance-based beaucracy. Examination boards and external examiners have long been intrinsic to British academia. They had their heyday when student numbers were small and it was possible to monitor them individually. College meant something. With the advent of mass higher education, tradition was welded to techniques borne of management consultants, the modular, cafeteria approach. Unfortunately, instead of completely rationalising the system, it combined the worst aspects of the two, maintaining a collegial myth. They also contend that the system eliminates differences between universities in so far as a degree from one is equivalent to that of another. Certainly the world outside academia doesn't subscribe to that view. But the perpetuation of myths is extremely important to the British. They give credence to erratic, irrational behaviours by creating a mythic past that evolved for the greater good and must never be interferred with.

Many British institutions are imbued with these ideals: parliament (Will the Right Honourable member for...?), the courts (wigs?), medicine (Who did you play rugby for...?).

Instant traditions are rather like instant classics. Blink and they are before your eyes as though they always were. Academics, who should be the fount of rationality, are as prone to instant mythologising as others. It is a great pity.
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