Monday, 2 March 2009

The cat's important too, mind

I am marking a bunch of first year essays. I am sitting comfortably on a couch, with a large orange cat asleep on my lap. The essay is pinned to a clipboard, and in front of me (and the cat) is a laptop table (blue); sitting on it is a laptop computer (white) made by the small but adventurous Silicon Valley startup company formerly known as Apple Computer. Open in the computer are: a standardized comment sheet (in Word); a set of marking criteria (a spreadsheet; more of this anon); an excellent dictionary; and the entirety of the internet, via Firefox. Oh, and an address book, that has photos of all my students in it. I have a bad memory for names.

As I read the essay, I annotate it with a pen (red). During the course of the annotation I refer to the computer quite frequently. For instance: when the student misuses a word I sometimes copy the correct definition from the dictionary and paste it into the comment sheet. Did Chaucer really, as the student says, introduce rime royale into English? Yes, says the internet. Tick. And so on.

Aha! this student is yet another of those who have fallen prey to the cult of the splice comma. The what? Apparently this is the term for running two sentences together, joined by a comma, without a conjunction. This usage is now reaching epidemic proportions in English students at all levels; since we have a whole marking criterion called 'use of English', and since this is definitely a misuse of English, it's quite important.

What to do about it? I meditate for a little on how to compose a simple rule to explain to the students why and how the splice comma is a Bad Thing, and give up. What am I, a linguist? I ask my wife, who, it happens, is, or at least was, a linguist, and she gives the matter deep linguistic thought, and then tells me to look in Eats Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss (who is not a linguist).

I download a copy of this book, find the relevant bit, where the issue is described with entertaining clarity, copy it (fair use for academic purposes, right?), open a Google Document, write a couple of explanatory sentences, and paste in the Truss paragraph. I save the document as a web page, copy the URL, paste it into with a suitable link heading; paste it again into the Google document I have prepared to help a big tranche of the first year that I am supervising in a module called Independent Study, and email it too to all the first year students whose essays I am currently marking. The problem is solved, it seems to me (is that a splice comma, I wonder?).

Back to the essay. I finish reading it, and type up the comments in my Word document. I go to my marking criteria spreadsheet (a copy is here; I hope it explains itself). I choose the band under each criterion that most matches the comment I have written in the comment sheet, and tick it. The program obligingly converts these ticks into marks, averages them, and puts the rounded average in a box at the bottom of the page. I consider this, tweak it a little to match my overall intuition about the essay, and save and print the document. I type the tweaked average mark into the comment sheet, and save and print it. The comment sheet and the criteria spreadsheet and the annotated essay go to the student, together with a pre-prepared explanatory document. Job done. And, I think to myself, next time I do this marking business I will encourage the students to email me their essays, so that I can cut out the bits of paper stage altogether.

Are computers useful for the teaching of English? Do you have to ask? Mind you, the cat (orange) is important, too.