To the inexperienced marker, the thought of grading undergraduate essays might be a pleasurable one. Perhaps they have conjured the image of cosy evenings in, enjoying a bottle of wine and some light jazz, whilst absorbing and appreciating the wisdom and endeavours of their students. Sadly, the reality is less edifying: long hours hunched over piles of paperwork, correcting grammar, altering footnotes, and generally despairing of humanity while reaching for the Benzedrine. You soon learn, however, that undergraduates and their essays come in distinct flavours; here then, in no particular order, is a spotters’ guide to some of the more dangerous species of undergraduate essay writer…
Usually a clever student whose intelligence is matched only by their desire to show just how clever they are. In an effort to appear like the urbane and sophisticated academic they know at heart they are, the student takes any word with less than four syllables and replaces it with one of at least twelve. In the best cases, this can have you reaching for the dictionary with a muttered oath every half-page; in the worst, it looks like the student has had some sort of profound psychotic episode involving a thesaurus. Expect maybe one in ten of these fancy words to be used correctly. The most astute and capable of Malapropism Maniacs eschew reality entirely, often preferring to invent their own words in defiance of anything contained in the rich lexicon of world language.
The Mystifier is a close relative of the Malapropism Maniac, but whilst the latter’s use of complicated terminology often obscures the point they are trying to make, the former uses such language to disguise the fact that they have no point at all. Expect to spend four hours translating a single sentence to discover that ‘Hamlet is a prince, and that’s quite interesting’. It is entirely possible that you will discover halfway through the year that the Mystifier is in fact an Engineering student who has been attending your classes in error. In the land of the Mystifier, confusion reigns supreme.
A student who has failed to grasp the linear nature of time. The Out-Of-Time Kid’s essay rockets crazily across the epochs, making connections between literary events that would only be possible with the help of Doctor Who. Expect the student to imply that the rise of the novel in the 19th century affected the metaphysical poets, and to infer that the Beowulf poet knew Jane Austen and/or Mary Shelley. The Out-Of-Time Kid should not be confused with…
With six essays all due on the same day in late November, the Ran-Out-Of-Time Kid will nevertheless avoid doing any work until five days before the deadline, at which point they will invest in several multipacks of Red Bull, buy enough Pro Plus tablets to raise the share price, and settle down for what they hope will be a sleepless period of frenzied genius. Expect the essay to become more incoherent as it goes on: in some cases it will devolve into a final series of bullet points, in others it will simply finish mid-word. You can hunt for a bibliography if you want, but you will never find it. Fun fact: after all that Pro Plus, the street value of the Ran-Out-Of-Time Kid’s blood would be enough to pay off their student loan.
The Seer sees all and knows all. It may be a superb essay or an awful one, but in either case you can expect there to be no footnotes at all. A storm of quotations, both primary and secondary, are pulled from thin air in the full expectation that the marker is just as omniscient as the student: seasoned markers will know the difficulty of suppressing the involuntary sob of anguish that comes of flicking through a 400-page novel in an attempt to verify whether Moll Flanders does indeed extol the aphrodisiac qualities of boiled cabbage.
One of the difficulties in having a compulsory module on literary theories is that some of the students attempt to use them: the Freud-Ate-My-Homework uses literary theory as a substitute for actual thought, and works it into every conceivable sentence in the essay. Not only does this send you groping for The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory to remind yourself of what Lacan was all about, but you can also expect to endure the purgatory of marking such monstrosities as a Marxist reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or an Eco-Feminist take on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Any student who mentions Slavoj Žižek gets an automatic Third.
A student who is well and truly in the pulpit. An Ian Paisley’s essay will avoid the sober and reflective tones usual to academic writing in favour of a fire-and-brimstone style rhetorical tour de force full of wailing and gnashing of teeth. On close examination, you can usually see the spittle on the page from the student’s private oration. Alas, the student often works his or herself into such a foam-freckled frenzy that they do not allow such inconvenient factors as moderation, circumspection, or even reality, to get in the way of a good rant; fortunately, it does not matter what mark you give them, as they are destined for a career in politics or the Church regardless.
An embryonic journalist, the Reviewer forgoes actual analysis of a primary text in favour of passing value judgements (or casting moral aspersions, whichever is more fun). Expect a slew of breathless platitudes about how wonderful a text is, usually capped a by wide-eyed and nausea-inducing claim that it ‘still has relevance today’ or something equally bathetic. If they do not like the work, expect the author to be accused of closet Nazi-ism. The Reviewer will almost always refer to the author by their first name, unless the writer only has a first name in which case they will be ‘darling Homer’ or ‘dear Chrétien’. A fun game you can play: try to match up the Reviewer with the newspaper they will eventually work for. Are they a simpering Guardianista? A militant Indy leftist? Or an oleaginous creep destined to end up as a food critic for The Speccie?
This student knows exactly what essay they want to write. What a shame, then, that you failed to ask the right question. Attempting to make the best of a bad situation, the student will take your essay asking about the relevance of social norms in The Mill on the Floss, proudly announce that the real issue of interest is the treatment of gender, and then launch in to a magnificent 1,500 word tangent about that. If you are lucky, they might just have enough self-awareness to remember to return briefly to the terms of the set question in the final sentence of their conclusion. Expect them to look horrified with their mark during the essay hand-back session.
A close relative of the Seer, the Generaliser likewise sees all and knows all. Whilst the former does at least pull evidence from somewhere, the latter instead takes upon him/herself the task of explaining the historical or social context of a piece of literature in their own words. What they lack in advanced degrees they make up for in sheer gumption, often reducing complex and nuanced historical situations to a pre-school level of understanding. Expect to be told that ‘death was very common in the Middle Ages’ or that ‘Victorian society contained many women interested in love’.
A student who has read only one book, but is inordinately proud of the fact. This will usually be a popular publication, often by a journalist or ex-politician, and despite at best having only tangential relevance to the set question the ardent Follower will produce a shower of footnotes. The author of this work will be name-checked at least once in the body of the essay, and described in adoring terms as a ‘noted cultural commentator’ or ‘intellectual heavyweight’. More unfortunately still, like all true believers the Follower-Of-The-One-True-Word is never far from their holy book, and you can thoroughly expect them to produce it in tutorials or essay hand-back sessions while tediously explaining exactly why Margaret Thatcher: The Downing Street Years is relevant to the study of Romantic poetry.
If this student were a colour, it would be beige. They are bland, bland, bland. So too, unfortunately, is their essay. It is not good, but nor is it bad; it does not do anything particularly right, but it does not get anything particularly wrong either. Having decided within the first few sentences that this is destined for a 65-ish mark, the only remotely stimulating thing about the essay is the rising sense of panic in the marker’s stomach over the fact that they have literally nothing to say in the proforma.
One inevitably wonders whether this student suffers from agoraphobia. Either that, or they have not realised that our university comes with a library. The Webmaster will not have read any books, possibly not even the primary text, but will attempt to make up for this deficiency by using plenty of online resources. Expect a kind of shock-and-awe approach to footnoting. The better kinds of Webmasters will usually limit themselves to JSTOR articles, and if you are particularly lucky you might even find that one or two of the many cited works are almost relevant to the set question. If you are unlucky, expect to encounter Wikipedia, articles from the Daily Mail, TED talks, lunatic wordpresses, and rambling tumblrs written by opinionated children. If you work with literature that deals with the Nazis, the American presidency, Shakespeare, or Norse mythology, the Webmaster will almost certainly root out the most paranoid and deranged of conspiracy theory websites to cite repeatedly: it is common at this stage to forego the Benzedrine and reach for the Valium instead.
This student sees the interconnectedness of all, and there is nothing you can do about it. Strangely enough, it is always Christian mythology that forms the nexus of all ideas in all literature. If a novel mentions a tree, it MUST represent Eden; if there is a man in the text, he MUST be a Christ-figure. Unsurprisingly, the student then uses this ‘connection’ as a means of linking texts that no sane person would ever put together: expect to hear how Grendel’s Mother and Mrs Malaprop, when closely compared, can both be shown to be representations of the Virgin Mary. Essay markers dealing with pre-Christian texts are by no means exempt from the influence of this student, who in defiance of all the logic of time and geography will happily argue that Medea and Clytemnestra are both Eve-figures.
It might be a good essay, it might be a bad one: it is impossible to tell, as you are totally distracted by the student’s crazed approach to fonts. Their decision to commence in Comic Sans was at best questionable, but it seems they too tired of it at an early stage: expect the font to change to something else equally inappropriate, possibly multiple times, sometimes even in mid-word. If the student moves into using the 2012 Olympic font, it is likely they are punishing you for something.
The Weirdo, as you might imagine, specialises in the weird. Writing an essay is not so much an academic endeavour as it is a bizarre form of psychological warfare practised against you, their tutor. The only thing you can expect, alas, is the unexpected. Your humble compiler of this guide could attempt to list some of the worst excesses found in essays produced by Weirdos, but no list can be comprehensive: the student will always find some new eccentricity, against which you have no mental defence, to torture you with. Perhaps they will impose a five-inch margin on their work, or randomly decide to start writing in Swahili, or abandon their analysis of love metaphors in John Donne’s poetry in favour of discussing the effects of Perestroika on the Iron Curtain. If you have the misfortune to encounter a Weirdo, be afraid. Be very afraid.
The most aggravating of students, but fortunately also the rarest. Their way of getting back at you is to produce an essay of astounding technical ability, with malice aforethought. The eloquence will dazzle, the argument will be breathtaking in its originality, the referencing will be unimpeachable. Not only will you wish you had written it, you may very well doubt you could have written it. Most crushing of all will be the essay hand-back session, where the student will sit stony-faced and impassive while you burble witless and adoring superlatives at them: they may condescend to crack a smile as they leave the room, but showing true elation would be beneath them.
Who is this student? You will never know, because no force in heaven and earth can extract an essay from them. This student unerringly experiences a personal apocalypse around the essay deadline. Perhaps they ate a dodgy curry, perhaps their student dorm has been closed for emergency fumigation, perhaps Mildred the goldfish has suddenly and unexpectedly departed for the great big aquarium in the sky, but there is always a reason for why they have not handed in an essay for you to mark. Elderly great-aunts and great-uncles across the land should fear the sudden spike in their mortality rates around submission time, and the World Health Organisation is currently investigating the periodic re-emergences of Black Death in young people in certain university towns at fixed points in the year.