URSABLOG: Marking Time

They’re sitting there next to me, on my desk, at home, glaring at me. Their existence pricks my  conscience. They arrived some days ago in my office, and I left them there for while, just getting used to their presence. And now they’re here, waiting peacefully enough, patient, but nonetheless demanding my attention. Yes, it’s exam marking time again and my duty is calling. 

The Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers has two examination sessions every year, in May and November. This is convenient enough for the students who take them, as then they can enjoy the start of the summer and the Christmas party season freely, knowing that the results will arrive much later. However by the time the papers are all sent to Head Office in London and are distributed to examiners all over the world, they tend to arrive at challenging times. 

For me this means usually bang in the middle of the Christmas season, and so I have to squeeze some space from this busy time – especially if I am travelling to see family – to devote the time necessary to them. Summer, for me at least, is worse. In Greece I always say there are two seasons, summer and the other one. There is not the gradual movement through spring (which only really arrives during Easter, intermittently at that) into summer, but it’s as though someone has just flicked a switch. This happened about two weeks ago here, when the temperatures started to consistently get above twenty five degrees centigrade, and only really got going properly last week once the last of the rain had gone. Those who equate Posidonia – in the first full week of June usually – with summer will also remember big parties being washed out by rain, or being slightly underwhelmed by cloudy and chilly – for us at least – evenings.

But now summer is in full swing and it is a time for swimming, travelling to islands and beaches, and most importantly for me, long evenings in the warm air over food and drink, talking, dancing, laughing, having fun, knowing that the party stops only when it is time to sleep; there is no closing time in Athens if you want to keep going somewhere as you will always find the next bar. And as summer in Greece is mostly lived outdoors, having been confined to our houses and flats for so long, it is good to be out with people, whoever they are, all enjoying themselves and celebrating the warm nights.

But I am stuck here, indoors, on a beautiful day, nudging the pile of papers a little bit, knowing that I really should do something about them. What makes it worse is that I do take it seriously, as I feel that I have many people’s future in my hands. My work, my decisions, my comments, my marks will decide whether people move on or start again, or worse, lose hope.

Thankfully however I do not mark the papers of the students that I teach here in Greece. I don’t think that they quite believe me, but it’s true. Apart from the obvious conflict of interest – any references to Liverpool Football Club or red wine are wasted on other examiners – I don’t think I could take that level of responsibility, especially for those angry or disappointed because they didn’t pass. 

The exams – hand written, in English, over three hours – are hard, even more so for those whom English is not their first language, and who do not as a matter of course – who does? – write by hand with a pen on paper. The syllabus is wide, and the exams are not a memory test as they actually require thought and execution to answer difficult questions needing not only description, discussions and explanation, but application and analysis. The papers deserve the respect of the examiners for the students who have – in most cases – studied hard, the majority at the edges of a busy working life. And the examiners take time to make sure all marks that can be awarded are given. 

The process – I don’t think I am giving any secrets away here – is thorough. After the examiners have marked the papers, they are then sent to assessors who check the consistency of the marking by the examiners, check borderline cases, and generally make sure that those that should pass do. Finally, any special or more challenging cases are brought to the attention of the Board of Examiners who have the responsibility to adjudicate as well as sign off on all the papers before the results are published. 

My own marking procedure is thorough enough, and I have a particular process. It involves coffee, water, cigarettes and calming music in the background. I try and find two whole weekends – the only real clear time I have as a working shipbroker – to give the papers the attention they deserve. 

And the attention is deserved. I know the happiness and joy of those that pass, and especially those that exceed their own expectations. Most prize-winners (those that get the highest marks for a particular subject) are usually surprised by their achievements. As a former prize-winner myself I remember that feeling very well, however long ago it was. Winning a prize, getting a distinction, passing, all these give students a sense of achievement, but also a fresh confidence, a burst of energy, a sense of professional purpose that they may not get in their day to day working or personal life. 

So I, and I am sure my fellow examiners too, take this responsibility seriously if only because we know what it’s like, most of us having taken the exams ourselves at some point. I feel very happy when I mark a paper where it is obvious that the student has not only studied hard, but has found passion, and indeed joy, in their studies. I feel for those that have obviously worked hard, and have failed to pass because they have misunderstood a question, or run out of time. And I must admit I sometimes smile as I mark papers where the students have obviously not studied and try and stretch out their sparse knowledge into pages of waffle. You shouldn’t try and broke the broker, especially for the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers Professional Qualication Examinations. 

And so, after I finish this blog, I will think about starting marking. Or perhaps not. It’s a glorious day, and I’m having a few friends around later to celebrate my recent birthday on my balcony on what promises to be another glorious Athenian summer evening. But I will do it, and I will do it properly, because the students deserve it. The shipping industry deserves it too, for those that have shown that they want to succeed, and want to add value to their chosen profession bringing knowledge and understanding to an ever changing and demanding market place. These people matter, and deserve our respect.

Simon Ward