Friday, 25 May 2018

Normalising the extraordinary

Shortly after I returned to Ireland in 1990 to work as a post-doctoral researcher, my boss asked me if I'd fancy doing a bit of teaching; to keep my hand in, like. I was briefly excited by the thought that I could dust off my amazing course "Evolution: from (primaeval] soup to [hominid] nuts". But the boss was doing his version of that area of passionate engagement. "Would you, could you, teach FORTRAN programming to 3rd Years?". I could, I did, and at the end I assessed it, dealing with plagiarism issues along the way. I asked the boss how he'd like it marked because I was planning to give zero to the two students who had clearly learned nothing from the course.
"Whoa", he said, "have they made any effort and answered even the first part of the assessment?"
"They have"
"Then give them a scraping pass at 40% and give the best, who have answered all parts of the question and given it a little bit more by adding a bell or a whistle, 75-80%"
And it was so. That course dealt with a small infra-structural part of a geneticist's tool-kit, really only useful for those who were planning on doing their honours research project in our lab the following year. It contributed only 10% to the grade at the end of the year. Students got 4 5 6 7 or 8 out of 10 with almost all clocking 5 or 6.  The rather large range in ability had been had been normalised almost out of existence. Same for marking lab-books at the Institute: 4/10 for handing it up at all at all.

I taught, in a desultory fashion, in that department for the rest of the 90s, because I was director and sole employee of INCBI, and that took up most of my time. Accordingly I was invited to attend end-of-year examiners meetings. They were barely objective and transparent, because the Faculty had rather clear ideas about the ability of the students and their marks tended to get massaged up and down according to these prior expectations. I've written a shocking story of how a belated attempt at 'fairness' and 'objectivity' screwed over two youngsters at a prestigious [pink panther] British university.

Anyway, the year after I stopped being invited to Examiners Meetings, a rather extraordinary event unfolded. The external examiner had read with care and attention all the answers to "The Essay Paper". He'd done this because that paper carried 20% of the marks for the final year exams. The task for the students was to write for 3 hours on any one of a choice of about 8 topics which required a broad sweep of knowledge from, and beyond, the set curriculum. The Extern held up one paper, cast a magisterial eye around the table "Who has read this essay? Could anyone round this table have written a better, more comprehensive answer in any amount of time let alone in three hours?". Sheepish affirmation that nobody could have done better "I can't, therefore accept a mark of 75% for this paper and suggest we give the student 100%" And it was so. After acing a PhD, the student went on to take his rather frightening intellect to work for McKinsey, the Machiavellian consultancy firm. I wish I had been there!

This all came flooding back last week because we spent Tuesday and Wednesday listening to formal presentations by our final year project students. There were 37 of them, so it was a bit of a marathon. It is the last thing the students do for/with us: they have finished their written exams. I always go  because it is important to Bear Witness to this important rite of passage. Arguably more important than dressing up all medieval for Graduation in November. Few agree with me: the students attebd the session where they are obliged to do their own perf and might come in for solidarity with their particular pals. To a close approximation, nobody from Tuesday comes in on Wednesday and vice versa. The Faculty rock up to the session containing their own project students but are mostly "too busy marking scripts" to spend 10 working hours paying attention to a lot of short talks. The Project Coordinator and I and two of our Young Turks were this year the only people who, having Been Present for the whole nine yards, could compare all the presentations and give a mark [/10%] for the performance. This didn't stop some of our Faculty insisting, from partial knowledge, that their student had given the best performance they'd ever seen. The double meaning of partial is rather clever here: 1) incomplete, existing only in part and 2) favouring one side in a dispute above the other; biased. Apart from that almost every student ends up with a mark of 5 5½ 6 6½ or 7. Me, I button my lip when my students come up for discussion . . . I've given them enough of a boost from marking their project report!

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