Bad student essays, in my very brief experience, can be bad in an almost limitless variety of ways. As observed in the weirdly popular book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, the apostrophe is in free-fall, with ‘the greengrocer’s apostrophe’ (as in “bad student essay’s”) pretty much standard. Spellcheck might have eliminated many spelling mistakes from assessed essays, but that only makes it more shocking when they resurface under exam conditions, with basic words like ‘writers’ spelt wrong (‘writters’?). But this is small potatoes; and if your own spelling and punctuation are rubbish, you might even argue that it’s just evidence of the language evolving. Equally common, and much more entertaining, are those glaring factual errors actually made about the material being discussed. Among English Lit. undergraduates, this can, and does, include: getting/ spelling the author’s name wrong; getting/ spelling the title of the poem/ play/ novel wrong; getting the name of a novel’s protagonist wrong (‘Stuart’ Dedalus? Really?), and/ or getting the names of all the characters and/or basic facts of plot completely wrong. Staggering insight rarely follows.
A variation on the Total-Lack-of- Familiarity-with-the-Book bad student essay, is the Very-Close Familiarity-with-the-First-Two-Chapters-of-the-Book bad student essay. Here refreshingly detailed textual analysis is carried out on the early part of the text, without quite making up for the student’s obvious failure to finish it. In turn, this leads to the essay (more likely to turn up in exams, and which everyone’s probably written at some stage) in which there is clear evidence of the struggle to stretch the word count. Privately, I think of this as the ‘Ralph, I like him a lot’ essay, after a girl in my school who, as part of the comprehension exercise in her GCSE English exam, had to write 80 words ‘on the character of Ralph’. In keeping with GCSE English’s tendency to gravitate towards stories about adolescent boys and dying animals (The Red Pony, The Yearling), Ralph was a farmer out de-maggoting sick sheep (or something). Having managed 74 words about his strength and compassion and then ground to a halt, only concluding with ‘Ralph, I like him a lot’ brought the student’s word count up to 80 words – since ‘I like Ralph’, say, or ‘I think Ralph is nice’ weighed in at 79.
If you have to mark essays, though, mistakes which are unequivocal and easy to spot are forgivable because they take up less of your time. This includes most of the above, and, in more extreme cases, exam essays which peter out after a paragraph, to be followed by an elaborate doodle of stars, flowers or spirals. The best Obvious Error to encounter in an English essay – and one which is fairly understandable in students moving from the classroom to freakish and unnatural tutorials – is when a student quotes you, their tutor. This is even better if they quote something you made up on the spur of the moment (‘Virginia Woolf wasn’t that talented’), or when they unwittingly refer to you as ‘Dr.’, of even ‘Professor’, despite your complete lack of qualifications. However, the same failure to understand essay procedure evidenced in essays which quote the tutor may also lead to the most perplexing and difficult-to-process English essays. These are, more or less, the Failure-to-Grasp-the-Entire Concept-of-an-Essay essays, which, in the worst scenarios are plagiarised essays. Apparently now often available from sites like www. plagiariseanessay.com (which students will protest they only consulted to take notes) what makes plagiarised essays so awful isn’t the cynicism in downloading an entire essay, or cutting and pasting lengthy passages from one, but the misguided notion that anything so general, and non-specific, and written without reference to the question, would ever fool anyone. It’s this same mistaken conviction that English essays are just a collection of facts or words which leads to the phenomenon of lecture notes disguised as essays. These can be the most confusing essays to mark: you know that some of the ideas are accurate, but equally that neither the book nor the question has been read or understood. They tend to be so banal that they actually repel your mind with an almost physical force.
But perhaps the most annoying of all bad student essays, while not the most reprehensible, is the Bad Essay by the Talented Student. In exam conditions, this will appear in the psychotic handwriting which the young person sees as a badge of his or her genius. It will be peppered with personal anecdotes and/or quotes from texts not on the course, demonstrating that literature, for this student, has broken its academic banks and connected with his/her life – worse still, that the student cares. These are the essays in which a literary ambition, on the part of the essay-writer, is clearer than their level-headed appraisal of the writers under discussion. There will be weird rhetorical flourishes, puns, jokes and parenthetical remarks. Unfortunately, given the present-day opportunities to stay in education until advanced age, the writers of these essays will go on to do postgraduate work, during which time no one will be able to figure out what they’re so angry about. This mystery will remain unsolved until the student starts teaching and marking essays him/herself. At this point, the real danger of prolonged education becomes clear: eventually student-teachers are confronted by the fact that not everyone thinks the same way they do. Marking essays disrupts the necessary autism with which angry students construct all readers in their own image as the exemplary reader/writer, and with which they massively inflate the value of their own project. For not only do others hold contrary opinions, they don’t care. There’s just two or three weirdly angry people in the class ready to start the process all over again. In fact what you really learn is that you can’t really teach anyone at all: some teach themselves, the rest just ignore you.