It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of a stack of undergrad essays to mark is in want of a lot of red ink (with apologies to Jane Austen.) But...but...but... I've just completed marking a stack of such essays and I hereby declare myself pleasantly surprised. Sure, I had the usual quota of relatively pedestrian, 'too-much-description-not-enough-analysis', and 'wanders from the question in places' examples. But there was not a single one amongst the lot that was so full of spelling errors and crazy grammar that it was borderline unreadable (the enduring lament of teachers everywhere). Nor did I have any that didn't include any references, were based entirely on a the textbook, or (even better) where the argument was wholly constructed on the shaky edifice that is History Channel documentaries. (Yes, I have had to have the conversation more than once that the History Channel is not an appropriate source for academic history essays. We give you a course bibliography for a reason, folks.)
I'm particularly chuffed because this was not an easy assignment and, I have to admit, I'd kind of prepared for the worst. Its for an upper level paper that requires the students to chose a group of primary sources from the course reader and write an essay that locates them in their specific cultural, social and political context. They also need to provide a critical analysis of the significance of their chosen documents, both in their contemporary medieval context and for we historians. The sources they can pick from are organised thematically around broad topics such as lay piety, death and burial practices, guilds, regulation of prostitution etc. so there is plenty of scope for individual interpretive approaches but also, I feared, plenty of room to go wildly astray.
Grades in my department/school are scaled, although the range is fairly flexible. (For upper level papers, the number of A grades can be between 15-30% while the number of C grades is 25-50%. Anything below a C is a fail.) Normally, my grades tend to weigh towards the higher end of that range for Cs (maybe I am just a tough marker). But this time, I'm pleased to say that the majority of students fell solidly into the Bs (35 - 50%). As always, I also had a few real gems that earned As.
Incidentally, when it comes to typing up my comments for each student (I handwrite comments as I mark, but also attach a typed summary page), I always save the A essays for last because it leaves me feeling positive and happy. Anyone else do this?