I ran my eye along the desk. It’s not a big or beautiful desk. The space for planning and mark making with paper, pens and pencils is now occupied by anonymous technology. This desk and space is part of the identity of being a teacher. It provides a degree of stability, security and structure to a teacher’s day. Perhaps even a psychological safe place. I know who and what I am in this space. It’s where I generally live as a teacher when not in the classroom. It’s a shared space, a social space, a dialogic space. A space for conversations, co-existing, collaboration, thinking and reflection. The Ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus is said to once demand of a friend whose house had burnt to the ground, “If you really understand what governs the universe, how can you yearn for bits of stone and pretty rock?” I appreciate that the scale and magnitude isn’t comparable but sometimes after the classroom my desk space speaks of serenity, a restorative space just to be.However, its form has been transformed recently by folders of many colours. Folders of many sizes. Folders which enclose student work, student writing. A package or artefact of student identity. There are flowery, glossy, neon, arty, plain, sparkly, lever arch and ring binders overflowing with plastic wallets. Each and every one seeking my attention whilst in stacks, boxes and filing cabinet drawers. They contain the thoughts and words of students, their voices, and part of who they are is embodied in these folders. I’m not indifferent to the kaleidoscope of folders which now fill my teacher space. In fact, about two-thirds of the way through marking, say 35 folders in, I find myself succumbing to the ‘Minions’ folder next as it is bright, cheery and has minimal plastic wallets. I know I’m playing a little game around the folder’s form and volume of content, but come on, who said marking can’t be a little fun? And, who hasn’t done this at some stage of a marking marathon? The electronic submission has removed this visual pleasure, also giving students fewer options in deciding the form of their assignment artefacts.
The desk space is not just physically transformed but it acquires a spatial distance. Distance from students, distance from shared learning conversations and dialogue. Co-workers are now ignored as my conversations are solitary ones with a piece of student writing. I read student work critically. I read their work passionately. It’s a pleasure. I try to continue our conversations through the feedback process. I do it because it seems to be the only way, currently, to maintain the dialogue with students. But it’s inevitably a one-way process and therefore not a dialogue at all. I’ve read of teachers/markers who view the process as an administrative one where the focus is to grade and not dialogue. It is said that these give minimal feedback. I’ve always given a lot of feedback as I see it as a way of continuing to engage with a student. I’ve written previously about my use of audio feedback and how it won me over. Still I dream of doing better. I dream of having the student sat beside me as I read their writing, sharing the readers and writers experience and understanding. I’m convinced that given the time it takes me to craft individual feedback, I could be having a shared marking dialogue in real-time with the student. I wonder if it’s the bureaucratic architecture of assessments and marking, the form filling, the need to provide evidence of our feedback that is preventing our creativity and use of technology? I don’t mean technology to automate the marking process, except perhaps in MCQ, but to make it more relational and, paradoxically, more human.
I teach as myself, who I am. I therefore mark as myself. I place myself as a reader of student writing. I’ve been a classical marker writing in the margins of student work, although I don’t recall using a red pen. The in-situ comment now appears to be the norm on some electronic forms of submission. I try not to appropriate their text by marking the hard copy script. It feels as though I’m intruding into the student’s creative space. I resist the forceful urge to comment on every grammatical nuance. After all, that’s a bit like the pot calling the kettle black. I try not to just see the one ideal piece of writing and look to see individuality, difference, in understanding and expression of the issues. I try to see the rhythm in the writing, its strengths, the content which stops me in my tracks. My feedback takes the form of a letter on how the writing affects me as a reader. I’m often confused, amazed at the connections made and expression, disappointed, perhaps seeking more information and explanation. I try to invite discussion rather than justify the grade. I try to do this thoughtfully as I know that feedback matters and students take messages about themselves, their academic writing skills and university values from my comments. At this moment I do not like the words ‘feedback’ or ‘feedforward.’ They have become universally accepted terms which incorporate messages of power and authority and include many, many different genres which as Hattie and Timperley identify can have both positive and negative effects on students.
As I’m grading student work I get glimpses of many things. Students are very different and I am also different. How is my construction of academia, my humanities discipline and ways of knowing influencing my appreciation of student writing? Whilst we discuss the naming, timing and form of feedback on student assessments, we are not discussing how we might embrace the concept of Inclusive Assessment in our marking architecture. It seems to me that the discussion on Inclusive Assessment has almost exclusively focussed upon assessment design and student choice. Alison Iredale and I recently explored the concept of Inclusive Assessment (paper No. 5, pg 40) and I consider educational institution’s approaches to Inclusive assessment are limited. Waterfield and West suggest we pursue inclusivity through assessment practices, and I suggest that this should include the architecture of marking and feedback.
I’d love to think that this is possible, and that teachers, students and educational institutions are brave and confident enough to acknowledge this gap in our efforts to include.