This is the arresting title of an article by Lorna Finlayson
in a recent edition of the London Review of Books. She describes it as an activity that is despised.
However, she refers to it as being dignified and noble, even magical. I think I can see something in what she says about this. As a tutor, it is something that I spend a very large proportion of my time doing and I am aware that my marking has important consequences. At times, it can inspire students and I sometimes have very grateful messages from students who feel that they have learned something from my marking (this is parhaps part of the noble and magical part). However, I also get messages from students saying they find it confusing or discouraging (perhaps linking back to the "despised activity" Finlayson refers to.
Nowadays, we have criteria we are expected to mark to and this doubtless provides a transparency that was not the case when I was a student in the 1980s (I had no idea why I got the marks I did). However, as Finlayson writes, these are often rather general and subjective.
I prefer to think that the formative feedback suggesting to students what their strengths and weaknesses are is more important than the mark. However, I doubt that many students agree with this and the marks clearly are high stakes for many students.
This means that there is often a tendency to mark quite generously - this is true of most lecturers at most institutions it would seem. Finlayson makes an interesting point about this and the way it could lead to "grade inflation" when she writes:
"But even if it were possible to return to the good old days when only
the top 10 per cent got firsts (and a similar proportion of the
population went to university), why do it? To make it easier for
Deloitte and Accenture to take their pick? Alternatively, you might make
life a little easier for some young people who have been screwed over
since before they were born. Whose side are you on?"
I am definitely on the latter side in principle but, of course, standards are important. I would want the young people that follow to be treated by good doctors, taught by good teachers, served by good public servants etc.
She also refers to students asking what their markers want from their work. I can empathise with them but also the teachers who often might not have a clear idea and willing to be open minded about what is good work. I know that very good work from students sometimes surprises me with new insights and this is where marking can be magical (and I hope my responses to the work let my students realise that it is magical when it occurs).