the languages of essays

by tobybee

it’s been a while(!!) but hopefully in the coming days/weeks/months I’ll get back into posting some more on this little blog we have here…in any case:

I’m currently teaching an online university subject, and just finished a big lot of marking. The subject is an Open Universities Australia course, so the only contact I have with students is through email and group discussions. I’ve never met the students, and never spoken to them.

When I’m marking, in any subject, expression is often an issue. There are lots of students who don’t write sentences which meet what I’ve been taught are university standards. There are, of course, students who write phrases that inspire, or are as clear as crystal, and which make me want to read more. But there are plenty of students who don’t use the spell check, don’t proofread, and whose essays are a real slog to get through. (that is, of course, how sites like this come to exist. (and actually, I really hate that site, and I hate the practice that many university teachers have of quoting their students on facebook in order to make fun of them. that stuff shouldn’t be made public. public shaming is never good, even when it’s fuelled by exhaustion and frustration))

So I correct my students’ writing – I point out sentence structure, or word choice, that could be improved. When I’m teaching in a face-to-face setting, if I know English isn’t the first language for the student, instead of suggesting they proofread more carefully, I’m more inclined to point them to the language and learning skills unit. If I think English is the students’ first language, I’m much less likely to point them to institutional help (unless the writing is particularly ‘bad’). Which, I now realise, is an interesting division – and one that maybe this semester I’ll change – between students I seem to (unconsciously) think should get English ‘naturally’, and those I think need to put work into it. For most students I’ll suggest that they get someone else to read over their essay, or that they try reading it aloud: these are both strategies that help pick up troublesome expression.

But when I don’t know the student, I have no way of knowing if English is their first language or not. (And even more than that – one of my students today quoted from youtube clips, and I don’t know if that’s because they don’t know how to do academic research or they have vision issues and want to avoid reading as much as possible.) In this situation of online learning, I don’t know which strategy to take in my feedback, and how much to take the writing into consideration when deciding on a mark. I don’t want to look at the student’s name to check what I think might be their ethnicity/national background, because that’s just an imaginary and doesn’t really tell me anything. But I do find myself looking at their name, and thinking about it.

So at the end of a day of marking, I read this post by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and remembered that language means different things in different contexts. And in the context of living in an Australia that seems hell-bent on the exclusion of Others and the encouragement of assimilatory processes for those who are here, and when we today face a world that needs to be inspired by memories of Stuart Hall, I wonder if there are ways to make all sites of our lives resistant to this exclusion and assimilation. And I wonder if how we mark university assignments – how we interpret the languages of our students – could be informed by that.