Thursday, November 3, 2011

Does Not Compute

I rode home on the bus today. The bastion of public transport, the chariot of the people, the service for the masses. And so forth. And while traveling on the bus, juggling my reading with my new laptop (more on that later), I overhead a conversation between two undergraduates. One was adamant, even proud, that he had never, ever picked up a math midterm after it was marked. Why bother, he asked? His mark is posted online. The answers are posted online. The actual effort to go down to someone's office and pick it up was superfluous. (I'm paraphrasing. This particular undergraduate's vocabulary did not, I'm betting, contain "superfluous" in its regular listings.) The friend offered several counter-arguments:
-don't you want to know what you did wrong? Not really.
-But what about finding your mistakes, so you don't do them again? Fixing them at that point servers no purpose; he'd forget what he learned, since the class was moving on to something else. Made more sense to learn with the answer key when studying for the final.
-What if the mark was wrong? Well, arguing with the TAs never does any good.
-But what if they actually added it wrong? You could prove that much. Sure, but what are the odds of that happening? Why waste the effort?

It was at this point the bus reached my stop. And I'm glad it did, because I really, really didn't want to hear any more. You see, in my life before being an English grad student, I was a Math marker. And, not to put too fine a point on it, I was the best. Or one of the best. In my department. At that university. That I knew of. Marking math isn't like marking English, but the difference is really one of degree rather than kind. I imagine the popular conception is that English is subjective marking, and math isn't--there's one right answer. That can be the case. But just as often, your math marker is looking for either a written proof or shown work, and in either case, it becomes somewhat subjective. Is skipping the expansion a half-mark penalty? If the student just made one error in adding, and got the wrong answer, is that worth less than the student who showed no work but came to the right one? Did they skip a step in their logic argument? How does skipping that step translate to a deduction for a problem with 3 marks allocated to it? Can you really deduct 1/4 of a mark?

Yes, it's often one check mark after the other, but there can be a lot of work involved. I usually had a large number of students, much larger than any English class section--in some first year courses, I was marking around 100 papers a quiz. But I had a fast turnover, I wrote analyses to the profs explaining which problems most students got wrong and how (I bet they loved that), and I always, always made a point of finding out where the student had gone wrong, and at least hinted at how to go about getting the final solution. Yes, it was more work than my pay or instructions merited. But I thought that if I was in their shoes, I'd like to know.

And then to hear, even years later, in a university I'd never even marked a math paper for, that some undergrad couldn't be bothered to walk down to an office to pick up his own paper--that bugged me. In some small way, it felt like it dimished all those hundreds of papers I worked hard to mark. Yes, he's paying the same amount of tuition as a student who did pick up their paper (or so we'll assume for the sake of argument), and he is entitled to not pick it up if he chooses, but... well, there seems to be a basic respect for the process and the actual people involved to shrug it all off with such a cavalier, self-indulgent attitude.

Or to put it another way, sometimes I wish "Rate Your Professor" had an equivalent "Rate Your Student."

Later Days.

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