Exam markers, don't make a blue and use red ink

''You write some awful rubbish,'' a friend commented. I thanked him with a modest lowering of the eyes and muttered, ''Nothing, really.''

''What amazes me is how you think up that nonsense. You're on drugs, I suppose?''

''Not at all. I read the American academic journals, especially sociology stuff, and there's enough there for a column a day.''

My friend scoffed and accused me of maligning the hard-working intellectuals at American universities. I offered to prove my case.

Dr Richard Dukes, professor of sociology, and Dr Heather Albanesi, an associate professor and the chair of the sociology department at the University of Colorado (professorial salaries average about $US80,000 ($NZ98,000) have decorated the pages of The Social Science Journal with the results of their latest ground-breaking contribution to their discipline's remorseless crusade to better the lot of the human race.

Richard and Heather have discovered students react negatively when their work is marked in red ink! An A+ in red emerges as less pleasing than the same mark in any other colour. Red ink, it seems, ''can upset students and weaken teacher-student relationships''.

The survey was of 199 students. (Why not 200? Perhaps the odd number gives the whole fiasco an air of authenticity). Teachers who used red ink were rated ''lower in bedside manner''. That the University of Colorado conducts its tutorials in bedrooms is something we can discuss another time.

The professors' advice is - ''don't use red ink if you want happy students''. The question of how tenuous is the professors' grip on reality can be answered by mentioning their theory that writing in capital letters in emails is impolite because ''it's like shouting at someone''.

Just in case you think I'm picking on our American allies I should mention that in 2008 hundreds of British schools banned red ink to correct work because it was considered ''confrontational''.

There has been no official reaction from the University of Otago but one source has revealed that immediately the Colorado research hit the academic grapevine the Leith ran red with ink for two whole days.

There is no way of knowing if the ink came from the sociology department, but given its stated aim is ''to critically analyse how people organise and participate in groups, collectivities or societies and seek to understand how humans as social beings construct, re-construct, and resist the social world in which they live'', ink colour must be covered in there somewhere.

Inevitably, one's own student days spring to mind. I'm fairly sure there was no sociology department in the 1960s, although I once did a paper in which I learnt all I needed to know about what Pavlov did to his dog. The SPCA would have him behind bars these days.

Essays were marked in whatever colour was handy. All that really mattered was seeing the pass mark, C+, at the end. Colour didn't matter.

We looked instead for small ticks and abbreviations like ''VG''. More commonly you might see ''??'', ''logic?'' or ''source?'' but, again, no-one worried about the ink colour. I once got an ''A+'' in red but it was in such shaky handwriting that the tutor may well have been drinking.

Before the invention of the word processor, however, there was one colour which struck fear into the writer. Blue.

The blue pencil was the one which a subeditor used to score through, strike out, correct and generally re-write the elegant prose of which you were so proud. In doing so he ensured it made sense, had no spelling mistakes and would actually fit into the two column inches which were all he would allot to the story you had taken 2000 words to tell.

Sometimes he didn't actually use a blue pencil but the phrase ''blue pencil'' had come to mean editing or censorship generally. People got used to seeing their pearls of prose being hacked about and as subeditors have no ''bedside manner'' of any sort the issue of hurt feelings never arose.

But let's give credit to our NCEA examination markers. Recent evidence shows that the efforts of the sociologists at Colorado have passed them by as the idle wind which they respect not. They return the marked papers to students and last year one young lady agreed to show me her science papers (probably because she did very well in that subject).

All the marking was in red ink! But the young lady is fine. No tears. No drama. In fact she wondered whether my intense interest in the colour of the ink used by the exam markers might well be confirmation that the old man was finally cracking up.

Or is it the academics who are losing their marbles?A survey of 199 of them should give us the answer.

Jim Sullivan is a Dunedin writer and broadcaster.


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