Sunday, 23 January 2011
Instead of Saturday
Judging and Marking
Quite forgot to post yesterday, most of the time being taken with a close to four-hour meeting (five with travel) up town, then the final stages of reading through the short-long list for the National Poetry competition. By this point every one of those 100+ poems is good and you begin to feel any choice between them is likely to be invidious. So you imagine yourself an editor with only so much space in a book or magazine and you look for such hidden strands of ruthlessness as you only ever need to argue with yourself. Even then it is a horrible job, so you start putting percentage marks on every poem, as though these were submissions in a class where that was the obligatory procedure.
Do I have firm criteria for my marking? Well, I guess, being me as opposed to being anyone else, there are my own instinctive criteria that are actually very hard to break down into components. And this reminds me that it is just as difficult to do that with actual educational marking, though this is exactly what people are supposed to do in most of real education.
When the movement to devise highly specific objectives and criteria each of which had to be marked separately and then totted up, first entered the system - some twenty or more years ago, I think - I recall wondering how it would work with actual works of art. Take Picasso Demoiselle d'Avignon, and award percentage marks for Assessment Objectives such as: a) development of ideas, b) appropriate use of resources, c) recording insights relevant to intentions, d) presenting a personal, informed and meaningful response. You do so by breaking down each individual Objective (worth 20 marks each) into ten highly prescribed marking criteria. To write them all down takes two A4 sheets, there being altogether some forty descriptors. OK, you have half an hour. It's called transparency. It is also a form of madness.
I do not question the idea that, whatever the work in front of us, we do pay attention to specific elements of it, it is just that we do not employ definitive descriptors of each element separately - that is if we have articulated each element distinctly in the first place - then add them up to make a total. You can carry on subdividing and subdividing. Lovers of small numbers, Auden noted, go benignly potty. It is the lovers of the big numbers, the actual system makers, that are stark, staring, frothing-at-the-mouth mad.
It comes down, does it not ladies and gentlemen of the jury, to a matter of trust. Do you trust the people you have entrusted with the marking, or do you prescribe and micro-manage every last detail for them just to make sure they are not all the scoundrels and incompetents you expect them to be? Best to safe, you know.
If I had to use any such system for 8000 poems I would be here next year. But then I wouldn't take the job on. Now here I am on percentage marks, instinctive percentages, nothing under 60%, very few under 70% and a few hovering a little over 80%. It's almost exactly like university marking. Do I have a personal winner yet to be debated with the other judges? No, not yet. But I do have some 80%+s. So it will be back to reading them all over again before the judges' meeting.
I note in passing the rallying round Ricky Gervais in defence of his performance at the Golden Globe awards. I catch the radio this morning and Dom Joly's airy line that Americans are sycophantic simpletons stuck in their own little bubble and it takes a gritty Brit to tell them the truth about their false gilded selves. A little later an American guest on the same show makes a minor remark about the queen not being likely to meet the Middleton parents till the wedding, and wonders - since it is alien life they have just been talking about - whether the queen is an alien. The others in the studio, there to review the press, which seems essentially to have meant a review of the Independent on Sunday, are hardly monarchists, I suspect, but you can practically hear the indrawing of breath as if to gasp, The queen is our own alien, Yanks go home!
For my money Gervais is rather splendid, like something, perfectly appropriately, out of Petronius's Satyricon, a jester at Trimalchio's Feast (apropos of which this is, erm, not the original as in Petronius, but very beautiful). Well, indeed, Gervais plays nightmare to the dream factory and it adds a touch of danger but, on the other hand, there are circumstances where nothing is safer than scandal.
There remains the interesting question of the possible reaction to hiring an American comic to introduce the BAFTAS in the same way. Would it be quite so easy for the Joly Brits to find themselves being generalised about by Americans? I suspect it is the effortless superiority that most people hate about self-admiring liberal Brits. I don't much like it myself. But then I do occasionally realise I am an alien from another planet.