Archive for May 8th, 2007

One of my current side projects is editing a manuscript for Joe Barr, one of my colleagues at the Open Source Technology Group. The experience has me remembering the thousands of papers I marked while working as an English instructor at Simon Fraser University and Kwantlen College.

On our IRC channel, Joe is best known for having inspired our own abbreviation, NOAFD (Not On A First Date, because he is always telling people what not to do; apparently, a first date with Joe consists of separate sensory deprivation chambers in separate cities), but he is also one of the best editorial writers at OSTG. For several years, he has also been writing a series called CLI Magic about using the GNU/Linux command line, and the collected columns are now being considered by Prentice Hall for OSTG’s new imprint – which is where I come in.

As practiced by me, editing a manuscript is much like marking papers. Both require close attention to structure and develop of ideas. Both, too, require a clear sense of the difference between how I would express something and when the writers haven’t expressed themselves as well as they might in their own terms. Both also require a degree of diplomacy; it would be easier just to write “This stinks on ice,” but the writers will be more likely to listen and find the comments useful if I say instead, “Will the reader be able to follow this argument? How about arranging it this way …”

The similarity is especially close because Joe’s original articles are all under 1500 words, so that editing a section of the manuscript is like marking a dozen essays.

Looking back, I estimate that I must have marked well over 12,000 papers in seven years as a university instructor. This number was dribbled out in batches of 50 to 200, but it’s still an appalling number, especially since I was a very thorough marker, commenting on everything from grammar and punctuation to structure and ideas in considerable detail.

In fact, I did so much marking that I ruined the clarity of my handwriting to such a degree that you’d never have guessed that I had won awards for it in grade school. I switched over to printing, but, in my last couple of years as a teacher, my printing deteriorated, too. Had I hung on much longer, I would have needed to start marking on line, so that students could read my comments.

I used to mark to classical music. I found that Wagner made me work quickly but not very thoroughly, so I soon settled on the Baroque composers, whose implied sense of order encouraged me to be through or careful. Vivaldi was a favorite until his music became a reminder of Fritz Leiber’s death bed, but Pachelbel and Telemann were almost as good. With a dozen Baroque albums ready, I could easily mark a paper in 20-25 minutes and keep up the pace for seven or eight hours

However, I never warmed to marking. I hated the necessity of failing the occasional student, and many were less interested in improving their writing than in getting a better grade, so many of my comments were undoubtedly wasted. If I had had my way, I wouldn’t have given a grade at all – just comments, because worry over grades obviously prevented many students from learning. Of all the parts of teaching, it was always my least favorite, and seemed the least relevant to helping students learn. The best I could muster was a feeling that I might help students survive better in other essay-based courses.

Moreover, at community colleges, the number of assignments I was required to give and the number of classes I had to teach each semester meant that I was more or less continually marking. The work load was much less at university, but, increasingly, I felt crushed by the lack of originality in most of the papers and my increasing difficulties in being impartial. In the last couple of years, I had reached the point of asking students to identify themselves only on their title page, so I could fold it back and have no idea whose paper I was marking.

By the time I realized that, in the current market, I would probably get tenure about the time I was 95, I had seriously overdosed on marking. It’s the one part of teaching I could do without, and when I’ve taught technical classes in recent years, I’ve always been careful to avoid having to mark essays.

Fortunately, none of my misgivings apply to Joe’s manuscript. I hope that I’ve made useful suggestions for improving his work, but since Joe is nothing if not literate and well-versed in his topic, being one of his first readers is much easier than marking students. Still, as I continue through his manuscript, the similarity of the two experiences sets me remembering.

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