Assessing Foucault

This year most of my third year students’ exam answers on crime in colonial South and Southeast Asia showed a sophisticated understanding of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. They demonstrated a knowledge of the underlying logics of disciplinary power that Foucault excavated, and some were also aware of the difficulties of mapping these onto a colonial context. I was very pleased with their answers. But then I was struck by the irony of assessing their knowledge of Foucault through one of the central techniques that he so expertly critiques: the examination. This got me thinking more about why marking seems to leave markers themselves despondent.

Of the exam Foucault writes:

It is … a surveillance that makes it possible to qualify, to classify and to punish. It establishes over individuals a visibility through which one differentiates them and judges them. That is why … the examination is highly ritualized. In it are combined the ceremony of power and the form of the experiment, the deployment of force and the establishment of truth.

This passage precisely describes what I do when I mark. I differentiate the answers from one another and attach a number: higher ones for those who have done well, and lower ones for those who haven’t. And it would be difficult to deny that exams are ritualized. They are seasonal rites of passage. This aspect of examination is felt as much by the assessors as by the assessed, demonstrated by the outpouring of desperate Facebook statuses posted by colleagues. The minor frustrations and irritations stemming from the annual marking frenzy have been captured in this recent Timothy McSweeny’s post that charts the ‘stages of grading’ a marker passes through when bombarded by the more bizarre turns of phrase that appear in exam scripts.

So why does marking leave markers despondent, other than through the sheer weight of the workload? I think it might have something to do with a facet of exams that Foucault notes.

…the examination in the school was a constant exchanger of knowledge; it guaranteed the movement of knowledge from the teacher to the pupil, but it extracted from the pupil a knowledge destined and reserved for the teacher.

In this exchange, students learn in order to pass the exam. Students aren’t to blame for this instrumental attitude to learning, one that is common but far from total. Instead, exams encourage this behaviour. But most teachers believe that their subject has more value than its utility for passing an exam. In exam scripts, however, that is what the knowledge students learn is reduced to. I, in my role as a marker, have to reduce a student’s evident engagement with Foucault’s thought into a number, which is eventually combined with other grades to calculate an overall degree classification. The student’s understanding is not only graded but degraded in the process. It is reduced. And, as markers, we become alienated from our subject matter in the process. What seemed so big in the classroom, becomes so small on a mark sheet. This is the hidden emotional labour of marking. It is this, I think, that breeds despondency in markers, and not the students’ answers in themselves.

[N.b. The quotes I have used have been taken from: Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Penguin, 1991), pp. 184-94.]

One Comment Add yours

  1. Deborah says:

    Welcome to the crazy world of academia!

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