I came to university as a mature aged student. I was 26, hadn’t even finished high school. Now I’m ‘that guy’: completed two degrees with distinction averages, got a first class honours, almost finished a PhD that’s heavy on the critical theory, got a giant brain crush on Foucault.
Fourteen year-old aerosol-sniffing me is occasionally disparaging of where I’ve ended up.
I tutor a compulsory core first year critical theory subject for Creative Arts students called ‘Contemporary Creative Practice’. This is the first taste of ‘theory’ that most of my students get after blundering from high school into uni. It’s taught to the whole Creative Arts faculty, so despite being a Creative Writing person, I teach art history, dramaturgy, literary theory, and music theory. It was the first subject I ever taught and it was the subject that has tempted me back to teaching.
Around the faculty, the people teaching this subject get a bit of pity. It’s seen as the hard yards at the coalface. But I love it.
What we teach isn’t just ‘theory’, it’s how to think and engage and unpack and write. It’s all about research skills, academic credentials, and learning to use your brain. We give the students creative works from across all the disciplines, walk them through how to think about and compare them, how to get a bit of theory, slather it onto a creative work, and make up amazing connections.
There’s two things I tell every class:
- I wish we’d had these subjects when I was an undergrad. I had to learn how to think, write an essay, construct an argument, by trial and error.
- Critical theory is just looking, thinking, and making stuff up. We read the big names (Foucault, Barthes, Butler, Cixous, Said, etc), think about what they thought, think about what we see and then find a way to say what we’re looking at could possibly mean. I wish someone had said this to me in first year.
I revel in the teaching, splash around in the theory, and then I get to mark the essays.
This wise cat got it right, in some ways. Marking essays isn’t always fun, you’re alone, in your PJs (you can admit it, we all do it), drinking too much coffee and bemoaning the death of the apostrophe. You break your pencil leads with frustration (or jumble up your typing if you’re marking online). You scratch your head and read sentence (or things masquerading as sentences) out loud to try and work out exactly what’s gone wrong (or right). You try to remember the formative feedback sandwich and find nice ways to say ‘WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING?’
But I love it. Passionately.
Back in high school, when I was still a little almost drug-addled lunatic, I had an English teacher write ‘You’re a very good writer, one day you will do something with words’ on a piece I submitted. That feedback stuck with me. When I was swimming in the heroin fogs, I used words scrawled on paper to work out who I was under the blear. When I got clean, I wrote long detailed analyses of my recovery, and now I’ve written ‘that book’. One teacher’s words set me on the path to using my skills.
When I read an essay, no matter how much thinking through, researching, or word smithing has let it down, I find something positive to say, some little thing the student has done well to emphasise. I say the nice things, as well as the not-so-nice things.
Digging through to find these things is what makes essay marking good for my soul, finding the positives is a constant practice in academic mindfulness. And sometimes it’s just fun.
And one day I might even explain Harvard referencing in a way that every single person in the room gets.