Lecturer explains why your essays can't be marked properly for £9,000 a year

An academic has written a letter to students, explaining why their essays won't be marked properly.

The open letter, titled "Dear student, I just don't have time to mark your essay properly" gives a detailed look at why academics can't mark your work for £9,000 a year, beginning with an apology:

"I have just read your essay, and I must apologise - I have absolutely no idea what it said."

The anonymous letter, published by The Guardian, comes at a time when university staff across the UK have threatened to boycott marking altogether, over a pay dispute.

Don't pay attention to your mark

The anonymous academic tells students to not worry about your mark, because in all likelihood the person responsible for marking it has not had enough time to mark it properly.

They explain that they know you'll look at your mark the moment you get it, and might make assumptions about yourself, your work or your worth based on the number. But:

"I want to tell you not to worry about it."

"When I was a student, I assumed – as you probably do now – that my work was meticulously checked and appraised, with the due consideration it deserved, by erudite scholars who perhaps wore tweed."

"I wonder now if it was actually marked by someone like me: a semi-employed thirtysomething on a zero-hours contract, sitting at home in pyjamas, staring at a hopeless pile of marking, as hopes of making it to the shops for a pint of milk today fade."

Other responsibilities

The lecturer told the Guardian that had other responsibilities to worry about, and ends to meet as an academic, but wished they could spend more time marking and picking flowers:

"It should not be like this. In an ideal world, I would spend my morning carefully marking three essays at most, giving them the thought they deserve. I would spend the early afternoon wandering around a meadow picking flowers – something, anything, to clear my head so I can approach the next batch with a fresh outlook and enthusiasm."

"I do not have that kind of time. I have academic work of my own; I have a job interview to prepare for; at various points of the year, I have additional employment to help tide me over."

With all the pressures of academic work, the lecturer says that their marking suffers, and all those essays you've worked so damn hard on, staying up all night to complete, start blurring into one:

"Your essay is one of 20 or so I’ve tackled in one sitting this afternoon. They are beginning to blur into one; a profusion of themes and things 'to be noted' and endless variations on the phrase 'It is interesting that...'."

"I’m reading something you wrote on page two and I’m wondering if I just read an explanation of this concept on page one, or if that was in someone else’s essay. I have to go back a page, eyes swimming, and check."

"Your essay does not stand alone, but becomes amalgamated with the others I’ve read so far today, all talking about the same things, with varying degrees of clarity. Your words are diluted by the ones that came before, they are lost on me even before I begin."

One student, unimpressed by the strikes.

Common problem

The lecturer has a common problem, faced by a lot of academics, that they are forced to prioritise their own academic work over marking and giving feedback to students.

Some other academics agreed that parts of the anonymous lecturer's letter were true.

Whilst others were unimpressed with the letter, and wanted to make it clear that that's not how they mark their essays.

The most worrying part of the lecturer's letter is how their tiredness affects their marking, and how one bad essay can ruin a batch of marking.

"Your essay does not stand alone," they write.

"It’s either going to impress me or sap my energy, and if it does the latter, it affects how I read the ones which come afterwards. Too many awful essays and I can’t concentrate anymore."

The lecturer asks that you write your essays the best you can, in spite of this fairly demotivating letter, and write something worthy of their attention.

"Do us both a favour and spend time on your essay. Make it good. Edit, polish, relieve my boredom and let me award you a first."

The anonymous letter writer's experience may be fairly typical, and explains why your essays come back with vague statements such as "good" and enigmatic phrases like "why?" written on them, rather than helpful advice.

"I know that I should go back and reread a few essays to compare the marks I’ve given, but there isn’t time. I would like to look up the references you cite, to tell you if there are other gems in those books you may have missed, or suggest other interpretations, but there’s no chance. I also have a life – washing to do, family to spend time with, that sort of thing."

Unless something fairly huge changes in the way universities are run, this kind of "no time for marking" attitude may continue for some time, as academics are forced to prioritise their own academic work over teaching. Poor pay may just be the tip of the problem.

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