Marking emotions

This is the other half of the post on marking. It discusses the role of emotions in marking (see Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer) and her conversations on #markingemotions), and the role of self-medication (through sugar, caffeine and alcohol) to deal with those emotions.

Marking seems to ‘cost’ more than the hours we are paid to put in. It is basically a psychic toll that reduces the ‘psychic wage’ of working in Higher Ed.

It was hard to write, so I guess it was important to say.


Marking is extremely emotional for the people doing it. This post thinks about some reasons why that might be, and some ways of dealing with it… drawing on my own reflections over the last 6 years and from the conversations I had on Twitter a few Fridays ago when I live tweeted my marking, as well as more recent conversations.

1. Marking is an expert thing.

Malcolm Gladwell begins his book on expertise and snap judgements Blink with an anecdote about expert reactions to a kouros (an ancient Greek statue of a standing nude youth):

Then he got to the point. Why did he think it was a fake? Becuase when he first laid eye on it, he said, he felt a wave of “intuitive repulsion.” … When Federico Zeri and Eveylyn Harrison and Thomas Hoving and Gerogios Dontas–and all the others–looked at the kouros and felt an “intuitive repulsion,” they were absolutely right. In the first two seconds of looking–in a single glance–they were able to understand … the essence of the statue. (pp. 1,4).

This is pretty close to my experience of marking. By the time I’ve finished the introduction, I can usually tell what grade I’m going to give, the rest of the essay just helps me fine-tune the percentage points.

Of course, then, if an essay is only a pass level it will leave me feeling queasy and distressed; of course if an essay is a really good A it will leave me feeling elated and glowing.

2. Marking is a judgement thing.

Most of the time, teaching and learning is a shared, collaborative conversation. We like our students and we try to help them to improve. If they make a mistake in class, or they don’t know the answer in a tutorial, that’s fine. We explore potential answers together.

When the assignments come in, I often have to say ‘that’s not good enough to get an A’. And with the final assignments, there is no chance for us to get back together and try again… instead an H2B (B-) will be recorded on their transcript forever.

That judgement also cuts two ways. When I’m marking and a student has got something wrong (or just not quite right), I think about my teaching. Did I explain it? Did I explain it well enough? Did the student hear me? Did they understand? If they didn’t listen or didn’t understand, is that a failing on my part?

Sometimes, it is a judgment on my teaching. That’s why I appreciate being able to teach a class a second time–I can do it better.

Sometimes it isn’t a judgment on my teaching, and that’s almost harder.

3. Marking is an important thing.

I’m judging and being an expert pretty much all the time I’m in the classroom. That’s why I’m a good teacher. But almost everything  I do is invisible to everyone except  my students. We build a community of trust, and so judgments are made in a context of ‘I’m helping you and the rest of the class to improve’.

Grades are different. Grades are on a student’s transcript. Their parents can ask about them. Their graduate school can ask about them. Their employer can ask about them. A fail grade affects a student’s ability to graduate. A high grade enables a student to get a scholarship, or a prize.

Jo Van Every (@jovanevery) described it as ‘ranking people’. That is one of the problems. We are judging people’s worth and we are (or believe we are) deciding their future.

Students believe this too. Students see the grades as judging them, and their abilities. In the classroom, I’ll be warm and polite and encouraging. There is no way to give someone an H3 (C) ‘with warmth’, or ‘politely’. 65% is pretty bald. So the most important feedback I’ll give a student is a bare alpha-numeric code.

4. Marking is a thing we do alone.
Teaching is public. Often it is relational. Often it is done in teams.
Marking is done alone. So, like writing, is done in shame, self doubt, loneliness.
Yet it is done in an institutional context.

As Jo VanEvery said in another tweet:

here’s the thing. We value LEARNING. Institutions value other things. We work in institutions. (@JoVanEvery)

No wonder that’s emotionally fraught.


So how do we deal with the emotions? This bit is much less coherent, because it’s messy. Because emotions are messy. But let’s do what we can.

Basically we deal with the emotions of marking through self-medication: snark, sugar, caffeine and wine.

When I was live-tweeting my marking, an academic contacted me and offered me this story (anonymously), which encapsulates this point really well.

I do a lot of ‘self-medicating’ to keep my sanity as an academic. I think academics single-handedly keep bottle shops, confectionary companies and tea & coffee plantations in business!…

I recently co-coordinated a first year course with a colleague. We shared the teaching, but she did all the marking. One day, in a lecture on smoking and alcohol, I joked to the students that I only drink gin when I mark, because red wine leaves a stain on the papers. I followed up by saying that they were fortunate my colleague was doing all the marking! A few weeks later I told my colleague about this and she looked horrified – she said “I joked about drinking when I mark too!”. The poor students must have been terrified. Several weeks later after the course had finished, we were relating this story to a senior academic. She said “oh god, that’s nothing. I once marked assignments on the dangers of binge drinking while I had a hangover!”

I’m not sure what the moral of the story is….I don’t actually drink when I mark.

This story is fascinating for 2 reasons. First, it highlights the centrality of the narrative of needing a strong drink to get through marking. Even when the author does not, in fact, drink, the story they tell fits the Academic Purity Cult code.
Secondly, it highlights what a bizarre public narrative it is. The one judgement call I make about this student that goes on their permanent record? Let me make it with chemically impaired judgement! Now I personally think we overestimate the dangers of working with a glass of wine–if my blood alcohol is low enough to safely drive a ton of metal at 100kmh, I believe I can still mark effectively. And I sometimes do mark with a glass of wine, if I’m marking in the evening or on weekends. It’s sometimes a marker that says, ‘This is an excess moment, an overflow of the working week, an example of my exploitation’. Since marking often takes longer than the hours we are paid for, I am often working (at least some of the time) for free. Wine signals that. But that’s not the narrative: it’s ‘I marked with a bottle of vodka’.

And I think that’s because ranking people is awful. It is inhumane. It is disgusting. In North America it is called ‘grading’, like heirarchaising eggs or levels of beef for sale. And a shorthand for ‘dealing with impossible and distressing emotional necessity’ is the phrase ‘drive you to drink’.

Since drinking during the working day is frowned upon, and getting through 120 scripts would mean being on a bender for 60 hours… many of us turn to a safer drug. Sugar.

As Caitlin Moran says:

By choosing food as your drug – sugar highs, or the deep soporific calm of carbs, the Valium of the working classes – you can still … remain responsible and cogent … whilst still remaining fully functional, because you have to. (How to be a Woman,  p. 117)

We want comfort food because marking is so uncomfortable. We need emotional comfort because it is so emotional. And to counteract the carbs and the boredom (because much marking is repetitive), we need caffeine. 

This last time I marked, every 20 papers I would be all like

Nope, I’m getting lollies and tea.

The final self-medication is the ‘talking cure’. So much snark, or sharing of our feelings. So much talk on Twitter. So many blog posts (@readywriting does one every year). Online social media is the staff room of the 21st century, and they are there for you, even if you are marking on your sofa at 2am, but there’s still a lot of grumbling in real tea rooms, and moaning in corridors.

At the same time, there are so many articles I read telling us off for sharing our marking on social media. (I deleted them all, so I can’t find the links now. I think mostly they are a way of shaming you into staying silent, into pretending it’s all okay, reminding you to feel privileged, to be objective. So I’m not sorry not to be able to reference them).

Does snark undermine students? Is it a sensible safety valve? These are my personal guidelines.

  1. Be sensible. Humiliation is no good for anyone. Don’t deal with the psychic toll of marking by becoming a cyberbully.
  2. Be human. By live tweeting my marking. I demonstrated how much work it was. That markers are human beings. That I am their audience. If students know me as a reader, they can write for me more effectively.
  3. Be reflective. Writing and talking about marking is a way for us to become reflective and analytic, to learn ourselves, to learn from others, to become better teachers.
  4. Don’t be alone. We have emotions. We have values. We take pride in our teaching. We care about our students (individually and en masse). We recognise the psychic cost of credit, even as we recognise that credit’s value to the student, the institution, our social structures as a whole.

Tweeting, blogging, chatting about marking is a way to acknowledge that burden, to share it (a trouble shared is a trouble halved, after all), and to gain emotional support and surcease.

We are going to deal with this best, and most healthily, if we do so together. If, like writing, like teaching, like admin, like research, we do it in public and we do it in a group.

So, you are not alone. You are okay. Marking matters and marking emotions are valid, but feelings of inadequacy, shame and loathing are unnecessary. Anger, distaste, elation, satisfaction, boredom, confidence, uncertainty: these all tell us, in emotional shorthand, important information about a student’s learning relative to our teaching and the learning of their peers.

It’s a long and tiring road, though, so feel free to include chocolate, coffee, wine and some traveling companions to your journey.


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