Musing and Marking

It was that time of year again. Alison had a system in place, developed and honed over the years. There was a colour-coded chart, showing when work was due in between April and June, including exams, and when it had to be marked and moderated. She cleared off the top of the low bookshelves her room, and lined them with a set of correspondingly-coloured filing trays. Work to be marked went into the appropriate tray just as it was. Marked work went into a folder at the bottom of the same tray, labelled with its future destination (moderation, or distribution).

The chart told her what she had to mark each day. No meetings were scheduled on marking days, except for moderation meetings and the inevitable impromptu tearful sessions with students who’d submitted late or failed. The phone was switched to voicemail. The Internet stayed off. The colour-coded chart told her which assignment she needed to mark each day, and how many of them.

The total number of assignments for the day was then divided into five. Once she’d marked 20% of the day’s allocation, she took a break, stretching her legs by walking to the ladies to fill the kettle, and then making a brew, which she drank while checking her email. After 20 minutes, she made a mark on the whiteboard – like a prisoner marking days on the wall of her cell – and then continued with the marking. She was really strict with herself. It was a marathon, not a sprint. It was only fair to the students to give everyone an equal share of her attention, and not to disadvantage anyone by not taking proper breaks. She ate lunch after 40% of the day’s allocation, or sometimes after 60%, if she’d got an early start. At the end of the day, she carefully copied all the marks from her spreadsheet into the student record system, and parcelled up any completed batches for giving to moderators, or for sending back to students. Then, she checked the student record system to see how far the other module leaders had got.

It was a brilliant system. Alison couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t take the same approach. Many of the other module leaders seemed much more slapdash. Some of them seemed surprised when they were notified that their marking was ready for collection, as if they hadn’t set the deadline themselves. Almost all of them left the task till the last possible moment, and then complained about having to sit up for two nights in a row to get it finished in time. Their dependence on going to the wire made things really difficult for Alison, who as programme leader had to adjudicate any disputed marks and get an overview of performance in time for the examination boards.

This year, she had tackled her marking with very mixed feelings. It was the last time she’d have to do it, and to be responsible for co-ordinating, chivvying and scolding her colleagues into finishing their part of the job. It was the last time she’d have to buy extra tissues to offer to distressed students who’d failed to manage their time well enough. It was the last time she’d be disappointed by lack of effort, poor sentence structure, unbalanced equations or graphs with no labels on the axes. It was the last time that the exam board secretary would be stand in Alison’s office, arms folded, leaning against the wall, blocking the exit until Alison finished moderating and checking the last few scripts which had come in from a recalcitrant colleague (‘sorry, Alison, managed to leave this lot on the pub and couldn’t collect them till opening time!’).

On the other hand, there were some things she would miss. Really seeing the progress students could make. The occasional evidence that a struggling student had finally ‘got it’. The satisfaction of seeing those completed rows of student records with full sets of marks.

There was also some guilt mixed into her musings. She was really starting to worry about what would happen to the course after she’d left. Granted, it wasn’t particularly outstanding in terms of the figures. Student satisfaction looked good, at 92% for overall satisfaction. She kept to herself the knowledge that this was only enough to put them in the second decile nationally. Luckily, biology tended to do well nationally, so student satisfaction scores tended to be higher than the average for all subjects.  The VC thought it was an excellent score. Applications were good at 3.8 per place – but again, that was below the national average for the subject. Retention was hovering around the benchmark at 82%. It was all pretty…average.

But she shuddered to think what it would be like if she didn’t put so much effort in. Not many people knew just how important she was to the smooth running of the course. Not many people knew how many extra hours she had to work to keep the show on the road, covering for colleagues who were late for a research deadline, or sick, or just couldn’t be bothered. Not many people knew how many students needed her personal intervention to stop them from leaving early. Not many people knew how many school concerts or parents’ evenings she’d missed, or been late for, making futile attempts to slip in unnoticed when things were already under way. As if her husband and children hadn’t been tuned in to her presence, or absence in a large crowd.

She sighed. She didn’t think her replacement would have the same commitment. If Geoff ever got round to sort out a replacement, of course. So much for succession planning. Every time she asked him about it, he just waved his hand and said he was working on it.

Anyway, she would miss the students. And Tim and Heather, and Don, and their Wednesday therapy nights. And the woman who ran the coffee bar, although Alison had no idea what her name was. And the subject librarian.

She wouldn’t miss the endless meetings about car parking, or petty wrangles about timetable allocations, or sorting out assessment cock-ups. She was really looking forward to getting back to her research, and to doing some part-time teaching with no admin responsibilities. And spending a bit more time with her family. The course would just have to sort itself out. She smiled to herself as she reached for another project report.


Wading Through Treacle fictionalises the stuff in HE which you couldn’t make up. You can follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter, or like the Wading Through Treacle page on Facebookto be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of this screen to register for updates from Wading Through Treacle. Feel free to send Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email, too: wadingtreacle@gmail.com.

All characters are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental, unless it says otherwise. Apart from THES journalists.

If you want to read the Advent Calendar 2012, see the‘About’ page.

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