And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

torsdag 14. februar 2013

A Trial of Two Days

Ferret conducting a choir of geese, taken from the liturgical MS known as the Gänsebuch (1503-10), the Book of Geese, named after this particular illumination. The picture is taken from this website.

(...) and the sword with the belt was taken from the altar, and, turning to the king, the bishop said: "Receive this"
- The Deeds of the Kings of Saxony, Widukind of Corvey (my translation)

This week began very roughly. For two consecutive days I sat down with students to give them feedback on their assignments in a freshman course in ancient and medieval history. The assignment is an essay meant to prepare them for writing their exams, and as a teaching assistant it is my job to correct their papers and give them constructive criticism. It is a heavy job as it involves a lot of textual work and a lot of repetitive work, seeing as many students tread falsely on the same steps. The task grows into a certain monotony when you read the fourth paper in a row where the student fails to properly establish a foundation for the argumentative part of the assignment. It is, despite certain grievances, a great job, and it is also a duty I have to fulfill to my students. I wish, however, they would fulfill their duties to me by writing complete drafts.

Most of my students are freshmen and freshwomen, straight out of the Norwegian equivalent to senior high and unaccustomed to anything the university throws at them. They have of course been through a similar situation in the first term, but one autumn is not enough time to get used to the ways and means of higher education. Some of my students are more experienced, but they come from different disciplines - predominantly arcaheology - and are not entirely adjusted to the style of history. For two group sessions I tried to prepare them for the big test, and I laid down some very simple and fundamental guidelines for how to write a good essay, and presented a few things to avoid in order to keep me happy while correcting their papers. I had rather high hopes as they seemed to take it all in, but it turned out most of the first drafts were far from how I had expected them to be, since they failed to use the structure I had given them or, even worse, had only jotted down a handful of points for future work.

I have 25 students who signed up for my classes, and so far there has been an attendance of 15-19, which I'm quite happy about. In addition, I've graded roughly 13 papers for external students who received their feedback via e-mail. As you understand, I've read a lot of text dealing with the same material, and I would be lying if I said the repetition never got to me. The corrections eventually culminate in the feedback sessions mentioned earlier, and while they are the most challenging aspect of the job, they are also the most rewarding.

The sessions usually follow the same pattern: the students knock on my door or are spotted through the open door, invited in and asked to sit down in a rather comfortable chair. I usually begin with allowing them to comment on their own work, so as to gauge the expectations. I then commence to point out the various flaws or shortcomings, while making sure to commend them for what they have done well. Finally, after approximately ten to fifteen minutes I hand them their papers like a bishop gives a king his sword and conclude my sermon with "do you have any questions?" The whole ritual is very orderly and uncomplicated, and I have so far never had any unpleasant encounters or reactions.

Some sessions are of course a greater delight than others, and this depends entirely on the student. Some students are more engaged in the subject than others and are very eager to discuss the topic or to ask questions pertaining to the task ahead of them, the final draft. In some cases - and although they are rare, I highly appreciate them - the students want to shake hands as a sign of thank you, and that is an extraordinary feeling.

Not every student is as comfortable as that in my presence, or as enthused about learning and receiving criticism. Some students ostensibly take this course as a one-year engagement, either to scoop up what they consider easy points or to take a year doing something they believe is easy while making up their minds about what to do with their lives. This does not automatically make them disinterested - indeed, some do go on to take a bachelor's degree - but it is in this demographic one finds the less receptive students. Other students - freshmen or freshwomen - are so new to what they partake in that they are uncomfortable with the arrangement. This was especially so with one of the youngsters in my group, who positively shook with nervousness for the entire session. I felt really bad for him, poor lamb, and I tried my best to be calm, soothing and positive - which was not an easy task as he had handed in a very poor draft.

In sum, Monday and Tuesday constituted a trial for me, a series of sessions where I had to engage with a very varied lot of people and repeat myself over and over again, since they generally struggled with the same issues and had the same shortcomings. These sessions are situations in which I have to be at my clearest, both in my mind and in my words, and I have to evaluate the students as I speak to them and adjust my sermons accordingly. This goes on for hours on end, broken only by lunch and Latin classes, and at the end of the day I have either talked or been talked to so much that the greatest bliss is silence.

The job is, as I've said, a challenge. It is a very rewarding challenge, but it is also very draining on your faculties. Not only because of the repetition and monotony, but because it demands very much of you as a textual critic and a fellow human being. You have to deal with the frustrations that occur when students have ignored your advice or let themselves be derailed into a cul-de-sac through a careless reading of the assignment text. You have to be critical yet supportive, all-knowing yet humble when you actually do make mistakes and you have to be constantly present in both body and spirit. In a certain way, this is why I find the lovely image from the Book of Geese a suitable illustration of my plight: just as challenging it must be for a ferret to conduct a choire of quaking and quacking geese, so, too, is it a challenge for me to conduct the bewildered students through a maze of technical issues and obstacles largely of their own making.

In a few weeks' time it will all commence again as the students prepare themselves for yet another compulsory assignment. I just hope I am prepared to the task by then.

Image taken from MS. Royal 20B XX, f.1, courtesy of British Library

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