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Monday, May 07, 2007

Reading Papers

I know the teaching I do here is not real English teaching, in the sense of teaching literature and writing at an American university. I'm an ESL teacher (we all know that that means "English as a Second Language," right?), and so I can hardly expect my American Literature class here to bear any resemblance to a literature course given to native speakers. Probably the best correlation would be the Chinese literature class I took at Villanova, but even then, we read Chinese essays, poems, and short stories that were translated into English.

So: ESL teaching != English teaching. Different students, different goals, different everything.

But I am losing my goddamn mind reading (and re-reading, and re-re-reading, etc.) my nine (now it's ten) "thesis" student's essays. These papers run the gamut from unintentionally racist (and hilarious) discussions of Toni Morrison's Beloved, to sophomoric pseudo-analysis ("The theme of the story is love. Just as the main characters loved each other, that is what the author wanted to show with love.") to the truly terrible and outright stolen ("Mark Twain QUOTE, three paragraphs of text from Sparknotes, ENDQUOTE. Citation.")

It's a laborious process, because the order has come down from on high that these papers "have to be perfect." Meaning I have to literally correct every single mistake in these papers. Which sometimes feels like you've been asked to count the sand at the beach. After having discovered Google Docs, I thought the whole process would just become easier: in terms of man hours reading each paper, in terms of scheduling, and without having to juggle ten dog-eared papers and match which Maple is doing which paper on Mark Twain and Lu Xun.

Maybe it is easier, but it's still hell. I sink hours into each essay, giving notes and making corrections, and after I'm done, I get an email from the student (nary a half hour later) saying they've made all the corrections and would like me to re-read the essay. Impossible, I say, you couldn't have implemented the changes in just minutes. So I go to check the paper, only to find that my suggestions are ignored, or outright deleted; none of the changes I specified have been made. And in the process of writing more, I find that my corrections have been de-corrected: after hours decoding the original and hammering it into some kind of coherent English, I see it's been devolved back into some kind of mutant Chinglish version.


I now have a lot more sympathy for English teachers in America. Reading a class's worth of five-page essays at the end of the term has gotta take a lot of time and energy, and really tax your sanity. I like to think I always tried to write unique and at least somewhat inspired essays, but I can only imagine how trite yet another paper on a book you've re-read twenty times can be.

I asked Liam, the retired Irish-Canadian teacher, when he knew he wanted to be a teacher. Well, he didn't, he said; he kind of just stumbled into it, enjoyed it, and stuck with it. But he said he was immensely happy with his decision: the satisfaction of inspiring and teaching, the generous holidays and long summers that let you go abroad to teach in interesting corners of the earth, the joy of loving what you teach and getting involved with a younger generation.

All good points in favor of teaching as a career, and I'm inclined to agree. But these fucking papers ...

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