To fund my interminable holidays I normally work at least two jobs. My secondary position, working as a professor’s assistant, is convenient and my pay is predictable. Despite its convenience, I do all work online and can thus work as effectively in Dorchester as I can in Sydney or even California where the job is actually based. However convenient it is it is still tedious. Terribly, terribly tedious. My responsibilities comprise the tasks that the professor would rather not do such as marking papers, research papers and online course discussions. The professor is not especially fond of internet-based learning and is frequently overwhelmed by some of the technical aspects of online courses. After years of using that particular company’s software I’ve grown proficient in it and assume many responsibilities. Recently, I’ve also started to assist her in marking homework for her online German courses. It isn’t always very time-consuming. Really, I’m only very busy for a few weeks each year.
This position allows me to get a sense of what passes as academia and education in the second decade of the 21st century. Mostly, it inspires as much confidence as Irish town planning. Over the years I’ve held this position, I start my seventh in January, and I have read thousands of papers. In that time I have also kept an informal journal of the most utterly absurd things students have written. Hardly a term goes by in which students fail to provide me with more entries and this term has been no exception.
The two comments that were most horrendous were “There are 225,000,000 people in California who speak Hawai’ian” and “the Portuguese are the descendants of 19th-century French-Canadian farmers who migrated to Europe in search of a better life”. Such comments are steeped in a profound hilarity; yet, I cannot laugh. Were these comments intended to be taken in jest, as parody, they’d be absolutely brilliant. Alas, they are not. A well-balanced sense of grievance, a chip on each shoulder, similarly marks many student assignments. “The white man did this”, “the Europeans did that” – strident assertions with no effort made at recognising context or complexity in human societies. Earlier this term, for example, one student wrote that “White Americans” are the descendants of English settlers. Well, a few, perhaps – there are far more Americans of Hunnish and Hibernian extraction, for example, than English. Really, less than 10pc are of English extraction. Another student wrote that no “white” people were ever pressured to stop speaking their “native” language. Never mind those Huns, Norwegians, Swedes, Gaelic-speaking Irish, Poles, Russians, Italians, etc who were expected to integrate fully into American society, especially after the end of the Second World War – clearly this, and they, are of no consequence. Never let facts get in the way of a good screed, innit?
Over the years the quality of work has continued to decline. There is rarely serious thought put into work submitted. Most do not even know how to think critically. Assignments that are intended to encourage students to analyse topics and put things into context become the semi-literate rants of the self-elected victims and the self-righteous self-loathing. Many students no longer have even the most rudimentary grasp of English grammar, sentence structure, mechanics or spelling conventions. Americans have struggled with this for some time. Even the best writers have a bizarre fear of the letter “u”, a strange fondness for “z” and a tendency to forget the second “l” in many words. Their grammar is also generally off, but it is at least somewhat intelligible if serious effort is put into it.
With each passing term I dislike my job more. More and more students are lost causes, wastes of time. They are proud of their ignorance and hone it at every chance. Cretinism is now seen as a virtue, the lowest common denominator is celebrated as the paradigm of achievement and there is nothing nobler than being an ignoramus. This brave, new mentality manifested itself last term in the form of a student who wrote several extended diatribes to me and the professor. She wrote a brief history of the Portuguese language which, to her credit, she at least acknowledged as being Portuguese in origin. Much to her demerit, she failed to actually discuss the evolution of the Lusitanian tongue dedicating much of her work to extraneous details such as Portuguese cuisine and traditional dancing. They’re both interesting, of course, but not relevant to the topic. She also failed to acknowledge the existence of Brazil and Lusophone Africa. She argued that she should receive a high mark because she spent several days writing her assignment. She failed to realise that any work that barely acknowledges its topic and ignores entirely the fact that some 93pc of it takes place elsewhere did not merit even the marginal mark that the professor insisted on giving her out of a natural sense of Swabian charity rather than any insistence on rigour.