‘Come in,’ says Ren.
A young woman enters. Ren recognises her as the student from his Metaphysics class he calls El Whino. She’s the one with the twisted face who always looks moody, and who’s always asking petulant questions in a querulous tone of voice. The one who’s angry that she can’t understand what’s going on. He feels an ancient weariness in his bones, like he’s walked a thousand miles, a thousand years, on a quest only to realise that he’s going in the wrong direction. The wrong fucking direction all along. His feet have been worn to the bone, he has canulus dipthermia – ‘slowrot’ – throughout his body, the forces of darkness are going to win, and his life, which started off so promisingly, is being exposed as a cruel joke. Just take the damn magic ring-amulet-stone-necklace-KISS badge and get it over with. Shove it up my arse and zap me to death with it.
‘Angela isn’t it?’
‘What’s your last name?’
‘And your middle name?’
‘Ophelia. Ofy for short’
‘So you’re Angela Ofy De’ath?’ The Angel of Death. Of course. She’s come to deliver her judgement on me. She can’t understand mereological essentialism, so I must die. Except that he only imagined the second part of that conversation.
‘What’s your last name?’ he asks for real.
‘Saunders,’ she says.
‘So what can I do for you this morning, Angela?’ says Ren half-heartedly, even though he knows that she’s come to complain. Most probably about the mark for her Metaphysics essay which she will have recently got back.
‘I wanted to talk to you about my Metaphysics essay,’ she says in a voice that sounds like it’s supposed to be laden with menace. One of Lord Nasty’s crew, I am. His right-hand man. Right-hand woman. Right-hand something.
‘Sure, let’s have a look at it,’ says Ren. He’s determined not to say anything about her mark. ‘Any particular section you wanted to discuss?’
‘It was the mark it got that I really wanted to discuss,’ she says, like she’s running the University herself, and is going through the proper procedures before she can give Ren his marching papers.
‘Oh, let’s have a look then. Fifty-eight. Well, that’s not too bad. Almost a 2:1.’
‘Except that I usually get 2:1s in my other essays. So why am I not getting a 2:1 in your class?’
‘How often do you get a 2:1 in your other essays?’
‘That’s not very precise. What percentage is 2:1s and what percentage is 2:2s?’
‘Well,’ she says, fuming at this line of questioning, ‘it’s about sixty per cent 2:1s.’
If we adjust for her exaggerating, he thinks, that will be more like forty to fifty per cent 2:1s. Maybe even thirty per cent.
‘And when you get a 2:1, what sort of mark is it? Are we talking sixties and sixty-twos, or sixty-eights?’
After a few seconds, she replies, ‘Sixties and sixty-twos.’
‘So a fifty-eight is in your general mark area. Hardly unusual then.’
‘But this is as good as any of those essays. So why didn’t it get a sixty or a sixty-two?’
‘Well, let’s have a look through it.’
Ren takes her through the essay section-by-section, explaining why she didn’t quite get over the 2:1 line, which is sixty. Normally when he goes through an essay with a student (either one who is complaining about their mark, or with a student who just wants to know how to do a better job next time), the student quickly starts to appreciate that it’s not up to scratch. Often Ren doesn’t even need to comment much to achieve this realisation. He just reads out the sentences the student have written, and the student will visibly cringe at how poor they are. But Angela doesn’t react like that. She talks as though she’s done an excellent job.
‘But that’s an accurate description of endurantism,’ she says at one point.
‘It’s one short sentence. And all you’ve done is say that on endurantism, objects endure through time. That’s not going to help anyone who doesn’t know what endure means here.’
‘But you know what it means.’
‘Of course I do, I’m the lecturer. But with that excuse no-one would have to explain anything in detail, they could just fill their essays with the names of theories and say that the lecturer knows what these mean. But you have to show that you know what they mean. You have to explain in some more detail what a view involves, so that you convince the reader, the marker, that you understand it. You should imagine that you’re writing for someone who knows some basic philosophy, like a fellow Philosophy student, but who doesn’t know this area. You need an explanation of a theory that will enable them to get a grasp of it.’
‘You’re saying I can’t explain anything? That’s just insulting me. You’re supposed to be helping me, not insulting me.’
‘I’m not saying anything so general. I’m just talking about a few specific examples which are a bit below what they could be, given your talent.’
A bit of flattery might help, he thinks. At least it will help him to suppress the suicidal urge to tell her to get the fuck out of his office and quit wasting his time with her thicky thickness. Unfortunately, as a modern lecturer, rather than a pre-eighties lecturer, he has to stroke this neurotic student’s ego, rather than let her digest, by herself, the news that her essay marks bring her, which is that’s she’s an average student. Or perhaps below average. Her marks might be nothing to be proud of, but they’re nothing to be that ashamed of either.
The British degree system, with its crude classification of degrees into 1st, 2:1, 2:2 and 3rd, is supposedly liked by employers because it’s straight-forward and easy to understand, but it means that the students who are near a borderline freak out about finishing on the right side of that border. A 2:1 in their mind means an easy life of cushy, well-paid jobs, while a 2:2 means they’ll be assigned to the ship’s hold, to shovel coal into roaring hot furnaces until they die a horrible early death. Hence, the tiny difference between getting a fifty-eight and a sixty is to them the difference between being asked to come in and put their feet up on the desk, old boy, and would you like a brandy and a cigar, compared to having hot needles plunged into their eyes while their intestines are ripped out via their bowels by wolverines with specially sharpened teeth.
‘Look at this description of perdurantism, for instance. “Perdurantism is the notion that objects aren’t all there, when they exist, they have parts but these parts are time not space parts.” That’s a bit jumbled, and the marker can’t tell from it how well you really understand perdurantism.’ (Looking back at the essay Ren considers that a fifty-eight is pretty generous, really, for this tripe.)
‘If I don’t understand it properly that’s your fault. You didn’t explain it properly.’
‘Well, I spent quite a lot of time explaining this, as clearly as I could. Most of the other students didn’t have any trouble with it.’
‘So it’s just me, is it? You’re saying I’m dumb, and everyone else in the class isn’t? My friend Julie found this bit hard too.’
‘I’m not even saying that you don’t understand it. I think perhaps you do, but you needed to spend some more time working on this section to make your understanding clearer to the reader.’
‘You need to go slower in class. You cover things too quickly.’
‘When I do that too many students complain that it’s too slow, and too easy. I need to pitch it at a suitable level for University students.’
‘So you’re saying I’m not University level!’
‘No, you’re doing fine, just a bit more work and you’ll be doing really well.’
‘I put so much work into these essays already.’
That slipped out. Mistake. Ren thought she couldn’t look any more offended, but he was wrong. ‘You’re insulting me again,’ she says, sounding like she’s about to cry. ‘I come here for help and you just insult me. Now you’re saying my essays look like they’ve had no work put into them.’
‘No, no, I wasn’t saying that,’ says Ren, although that’s exactly what they read like.