MARKING – Walking with students

I think in riffs, playing with ideas, events, moments, turning them round and round, connecting and dis-connecting until I’m ready to write. Right about now I’m ignoring an almost ‘Garden size – Jenga’ stack of multi-coloured folders, accompanied by pages of empty boxes desperately seeking numbers.

There’s no two ways about it, marking student writing is work!

A word about marking: I love reading student writing. To my mind, marking is part of a much larger landscape of pedagogical practice and as I’m writing this, I’m beginning to understand why I’m procrastinating. I’m feeling disconnected, un-coupled from learning conversations, from the students and from my soul and being as a teacher. It’s visceral, as captured by R.S. Thomas in his poem ‘Here’

“I have nowhere to go.

The swift satellites show

The clock of my whole being is slow…”

I need to walk! Walking is part of who I am; paradoxically it both empties and fills my thinking, pushing me on a little further, higher. I’m taken back to a poem by R. Graves; “There was this road, and it led up-hill, and it led down-hill. And round and in and out…Resolutely nowhere in both directions…The doubt unchained them; they had run in twenty puddles before I regained them…” He was of course talking about legs, the poem title.

At various times I’ve turned to my bookshelf, my notebooks now awash with scratchy quotes, names, page numbers, but nothing leapt out from the pages to hug me. I recall Festinger’s description of ‘cognitive dissonance’ and it helps me understand my current feelings of disconnection and loss. Whilst engaged in the monologue activity that is marking, in ‘non-splendid isolation’ I feel the loss of the dynamic shared space where meanings, understandings and contexts may be interrupted, perhaps transformed. My individual accountability to the student feels diminished compared to the ‘machinery’ of assessment. Heidegger describes leaping ahead, taking over, dominating; and this is how it feels.

Crikey, where do I go from here?

Bruner says ‘…for there to be a story, something unforeseen has to happen…new possibilities…’ My new possibility was Lauren, an abstract artist, exhibiting her paintings and floor (more about this a little later) at the Dean Clough Galleries: Summer Exhibitions.  I admit to having an infinitesimal knowledge of art and painting and felt a lot like Jess in ‘The Icarus Girl’ when she explains why she was scared “…once you let people know anything about what you think, that’s it…they’ll be jumping around your mind…holding it up to the light…” Well, I needn’t have worried, Lauren walked and talked with me, she spoke of her system; often not knowing what’s going to happen when she starts painting at the edges of her canvas. Of how her first paintings were lines and circles interrupting space, but now she paints rectangles, sometimes quickly, very quickly it seems, and sometimes with a slower pace. She tells me that you can see ‘pace’ in a painting, and demonstrated her slower pace in one painting. And, I did see it! There’s a painting which doesn’t feel like hers and one that covers others she’s dissatisfied with. Her paintings have no labels or ‘For Sale – prices’, and she told me of her difficulties finding a way of labelling them, as titles confer meanings, they have connotations, which also bring dis-connotations. I understand, as I’m struggling to unearth what it is about our conversation that has become a memory for what is good and positive about life.

Virginia Woolf to the rescue, “…happily my thoughts were now given another turn…”

In the ‘twinkling of an eye’ I get it; the authentic self. Lauren’s conversation comes from ‘who she is…an artist.’ My procrastination, my cognitive dissonance is due to my loss of authenticity, the loss of who I am as  a teacher. I dream of talking with students about their writing, just as Lauren talked with me about her painting. I need to break out of the isolated, solitary marking monologue and walk with the students, just as Lauren walked with me.

What brought about my loss of authenticity was an assessment architecture which clashed with my pedagogical practice. Ah! I get it now! I see why Lauren created an artwork covering the floor of her exhibition room. She ‘hated the blue lino,’ but it was more than this, it’s about her authenticity as an artist, and as one visitor said ‘she’s pulled off a blinder!’

What have I learnt? That marking is and should be relational! Are we ready to have the conversation with students to make it possible?

To see more of Lauren’s art:

Virginia Woolf’s: A Room of One’s Own


2 thoughts on “MARKING – Walking with students

  1. stuffaliknows June 24, 2014 / 1:51 pm

    Thank you Ann. I have missed ‘marking’ this year, not in the sense of the enormity of it, but more that in a selfish way it validates me as a teacher. It tells me that my work has worth. Because of my actions my students demonstrate their ability to make sense of the ‘symbolic activities’ (Bruner 1990) that I have created for them, or put in their way. Like you I would prefer to enter into a real dialogue rather than the artificial architecture of the assessement regimes. In my thesis I talk about artefacts – examples being assignments – being ‘the public testimonies of recognition that every group requires of its members (especially at moments of co-option), i.e. the symbolic tributes due from individuals in the exchanges that are set up in every group between the individuals and the group’. (Bourdieu 1990:292)
    My hunch is that it would take a large shift in thinking at institutional level to move from treating assessment as more than ‘the small change of the compliance’. (Bourdieu1990:292)

    Assessment as a proxy for education is also a worrying idea, and I bring to mind Dewey’s thoughts on this in his ‘Pedagogic Creed’
    ‘Article III–The Subject-Matter of Education
    I believe finally, that education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience; that the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing. I believe that to set up any end outside of education, as furnishing its goal and standard, is to deprive the educational process of much of its meaning and tends to make us rely upon false and external stimuli in dealing with the child’ (Dewey 1897)
    How can I resist the labelling that is required to set up an exchange value for my student work? In giving the assessment a grade I am making a connection between the work and its worth. Lauren resists this by not labelling her work. That is quite a liberating thought.

    Dewey, John (1897) ‘My pedagogic creed’. The School Journal, Volume LIV, Number 3 (January 16, 1897), pp.77-80. [Also available in the informal education archives,
    Bourdieu, P. (1990) The Logic of Practice. Cambridge: Polity Press
    Bruner, J.S. (1990) Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    • anniesblogette June 26, 2014 / 10:37 am

      Thank you for your comments Alison, it’s just great having a response to my writing.
      Reading student writing is a great privilege and I appreciate how you might miss this experience.
      I like your reference to the ‘symbolic activities’ a teacher puts in the way of students and wonder if an assessment might also be viewed as a ‘symbolic activity’ we create for students.
      I can identify with assessments as ‘artefacts’ and wonder if they are simultaneously an artefact of the organisation (guidelines and outcomes written by academics) and a student artefact. Mmmm! I will need to do some reading around the ‘small change of compliance’.
      Your comments have taken my thinking to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of smooth and striated space, with the student writing being the outcome of organisational, bounded striated space which both distances the student and maintains academic-student boundaries. My walking with students I see as engaging with ‘smooth space’ where dialogue moves assessment out of the narrow confines of the learning outcomes to the learning context and experience of the student themselves. A part of the assessment architecture which currently appears to have little or no value.
      Your mention of ‘worth’ also opens another aspect I will need to consider more.
      Thanks Alison, I appreciate your kindly challenges to my thinking and knowledge, ann.

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