Pleasures of “Marking” a Stack of Essays (Flow)

Joy

Feeling euphoria from flow

Early in my career, I had a whisper conversation with two of my novice colleagues.  We had often heard several of our other colleague lament the fact that they had just picked up a set of essays and would have to spend several hours marking them.  To them, it seemed drudgery, and they assumed all of us felt the same.  In private, the two novice colleagues and I were a bit surprised and relieved to find that we actually enjoyed the process of marking our students essays and giving them feedback.  We weren’t weird for feeling this way.   Over 35 years later, I still find this a rewarding experience.  One of the reasons is that it allows me an opportunity to experience flow.

A well-known research psychologist, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (he has humorously explained that his name is pronounced “chicks send me high”) has described this state as having several characteristics.  Amazingly, in our job as ESL instructors, we often get to experience this.

Look at what happens when we are checking a set of essays and how that activity can lead to the euphoric experience of flow:

1) The goals are clear.  Our goal is to lead students to ways in which they can improve their writing skills.

2) It isn’t too easy nor is it too hard.  Some marks and suggestions that we make on students’ papers come very quickly to us, but on some parts of an essay, we need to think deeply and draw on our background and training.  And we have to consider each individuals student’s ability and personality as we decide how best to help him/her.  All of this is a challenge, but we have the skills to do it.

3) Self-consciousness disappears.  During this time, we are not thinking about anything else like future plans or present anxieties.  Negative thoughts don’t enter our minds. We are very focused on the present activity.  This can be especially true for ESL instructors as we can get “lost” in the unique ideas and experiences our students from different cultures bring to their writing.

4) The sense of time becomes distorted.  We are unaware of time.  We may think that only a half hour has passed only to realize that more than an hour has.

5) There is a bit of a feeling of pressure.  We know that there is a deadline for completing the task.  And we know our students are depending on us.

5) Feedback is immediate.  This is the one characteristic that doesn’t quite happen while checking essays.  But we can see how well our students are applying the writing techniques that we recently taught them.  Also, we can observe how much they’ve improved over the previous writing tasks.  So we are getting feedback from past work on essays and can imagine now how students will improve in the future with our marks on the essays presently in front of us.  But we’re not actually getting immediate feedback..

In sum, we can experience a kind of sense of joy as we engage in marking our students’ essays.  Don’t let some instructors who see it a drudgery make you feel as if you are strange for enjoying it.

I’d be very interesting to hear what you think are some of the unexpected pleasures of teaching ESL.  Please feel free to add to this by clicking on “Reply” at the top of this post.

David Kehe

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