Marking, Marking, Marking…

It has come to this.  I’m blogging about marking.  Our new semester of teaching starts this coming week so normal service will be resumed soon and I will start talking about the online component on my 3rd Year undergraduate module on Fin de Siècle Writing and Culture.  In the meantime, I’ve spent much of January writing an essay for my MA and … marking.

The marking that I’m focussing on here is the marking of the discussion forum activities that took place on my Victorians module in Semester One.   Sometimes colleagues of mine in English Departments have wondered whether it is possible (or indeed desirable) to assess online discussion.  I have become quite a proponent of assessing such work for two main reasons: (1) assessing online discussion values the work students are putting in to online activities (and if they’re anything like mine, many will be putting in a lot of work), and (2) you will ensure 100% participation, across the entire course.  Some colleagues reading this may say they have highly motivated students who don’t need the ‘stick’ of assessment to get them to participate in such activities.  If so, then good for you, although I am still a tad sceptical as to whether all students will participate across an entire course in such circumstances.  My assessment criteria aim to provide many ‘carrots’ in terms of motivating my students in terms of their online work, and it is my experience (after about 5 years of assessing online discussion) that many students will work really hard at online activities.

My marking of what my students have posted in discussion forums over the course of a semester doesn’t involve any kind of electronic mechanisms:  I basically look at the posts each student has posted (our VLE enables me to ‘sort by author’ for each discussion forum) and assess the quality of what’s there against my assessment criteria.  Soon I get a feel for a particular student’s standard, as ranged against everything else I’m looking at (as one does with a batch of essays).  As I read their posts I make brief notes for myself as to what they are doing well/not doing so well.  My feedback form is simple:  it lists the number of discussion forums the student took part in across the semester, and then I offer my comments and a grade.

When I have visited other English Departments in the UK to ‘demo’ my VLE activities I am often asked how long such marking takes.  Overall I would say it is quicker than marking the equivalent number of essays, not least because I don’t write comments on forum postings as one writes on an essay.  My assessment criteria are also often popular with colleagues.  In the forthcoming Guide to Good Practice in the Use of Discussion Activities in English (HEA English Subject Centre, 2010 — see my Ms E-Mentor ‘Publications, Presentations and Awards’ page on this blog)  I have written the ‘Assessment’ chapter and the assessment criteria I use are set out there.  They probably aren’t perfect, but they work for me, and have been ‘tweaked’ over the years to try and iron out loopholes (students are very good at finding these, intentionally or not).  At best, the marking of the online work is really enjoyable, because I see students putting in a huge amount of effort and commitment to the activities, and responding with intelligence and flair.  Although I do look at what is going on in the forums as they are happening, and as the term progresses, I don’t make any claims (either to my class or to myself) to look at everything at that time.  When I come to mark I do aim to look at every post made, and there are always new things that surprise and impress me.

If you are tired of London…

Now the snow has gone, Ms E-Mentor has decided to crawl out of her carefully-crafted igloo.  Actually it’s melted, but all in all what this partly adds up to is that there are not a lot of e-learning things going on at the moment because it’s our end-of-semester marking period, and Semester Two’s teaching has yet to start. 

So this gives me an excuse to drift off topic and talk about what I did over New Year, which was go to London.  I love London.  It is one of the most amazing cities in the world.  As I did my PhD there (Birkbeck College, University of London) I still know some of the centre of London well enough to be able to wander around with only the occasional nod to my A-Z.  The heading of this post is the start of a famous quote by Samuel Johnson (1709-84): “You find no man [or woman, Sam], at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London.  No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”.  Absolutely, absolutely. 

We were staying in Bloomsbury very near Marchmont Street, which is a terrific neighbourhood if you don’t know it.  One of the many delights of this street is a secondhand bookshop of great magnitude: Judd Books.  We wandered into Judd Books on our way to an exhibition;  well over an hour later and about £200 pounds lighter we then staggered back to the hotel with a shed load of bargains.  A good secondhand bookshop is a place of immense stimulation and satisfaction and Judd Books is up there with the best London has to offer in my opinion for an all-round, intellectually satisying collection.  They also give a 10% discount to students. 

The exhibition was “Wild Thing: Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill”, on at the Royal Academy until 24th January 2010.  Being a bit of a Victorianist by background, I’ve just belatedly been getting into modernism in a big way via my MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Manchester Metropolitan University.  

Jacob Epstein, "Rock Drill" (1913-15)

 I have seen some of Eric Gill’s sculpture before, but not extensively that of Epstein or Gaudier-Brzeska.  The Epstein room is dominated by the extraordinary, huge, human-machine phallicly straddling its machinery that is Rock Drill (1913-15).  I’ve just looked in the accompanying catalogue and find, to my surprise, that Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery own this.  Never seen it on display there.  It’s an astonishingly powerful piece of work.  It was one of the first pieces of sculpture ever to incorporate a piece of machinery into itself, and its sense of menace seems absolutely of its moment as the First World War is breaking out. But the figure too launched a thousand action movie heroes’ get-up: Robocop and Batman, you’re nothing new. 

I could go on for a long time about London.  We were there on Blackfriars Bridge at midnight (along with 200,000 others) to see the fireworks, but “I grow old … I grow old …” and in future it’s probably best left to youthful folks younger than I whilst I’m at home with my cocoa.  The other delight was revisiting one of the world’s most irreplacable and vital pieces of land: The British Library.  The BL is a beautiful modern building.  It becomes even more so if you read the architect Colin St John’s account of it: see The British Library (London: Scala Publishers, 2007).  At the beginning of this account St John says that “the library and what it houses embody and protect the freedom and diversity of the human spirit in a way that borders on the sacred” (p. 2).  The BL is a building absolutely designed to embody and encourage the love of scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge, and to celebrate the book above all else.  I think for me it is one of the most irreducably necessary places on earth.  There’s still time to catch the current exhibition on there: Points of View: Capturing the 19th Century in Photographs (until March 7th 2010).