I have just finished marking exams (Part Ib of the Classical Tripos). That means something like 130 scripts in all. Leaving aside what the candidates will get in the final results table (and that's not decided till next week), I have two immediate reactions.
First, the handwriting. There is something very odd about exams in the 21st century because the kids dont usually, through the academic year, handwrite anything. The good side of this is that you dont recognise the author of any script at all (in the old days you had marked so many essays in handwriting that you knew exactly whose script you were marking even if it was formally anonymous). The bad side is that they are so unused to writing anything by hand that a lot of it borders on the illegible.
Happily the dyslexics are allowed to types their answers , and I found myself longing for the next dyslexic . . . or for the day when they were all allowed to type their answers.
By and large, dyslexics apart, this is how it goes. One script in 20, you have 30 sides of crabbed, blotty handwriting. You can just about decipher it.. but that probably takes about 5 minutes a side. At a certain point you get so cross that you are tempted to give up. 'Illegibility will be penalised' it says on the papers. Right on, lets penalise.
So what stops you?
Well in my case, it's partly a family thing (or at least it's put into higher relief that way; the truth is that I have always persevered with this stuff, reluctantly...). My son has truly atrocious handwriting. But in Oxford last year some poor examiners persevered with his scrawl, enough to give him a First. For which effort I am truly, truly grateful. So now when I spend hours on these scripts I can barely read, I think: "I am not doing it for you, you messy child.. I am doing it for your Mum who wants more than anything that someone will go the extra mile to read your scrawl". And so I do.
In fact it can sometimes be very funny prose you end up reading. Exam speak afflicts almost all the candidates, drawing them 'back' to words they have never used ... and indeed not have been used for generations. I cant count the number of "aforementioned"s I have spotted in these scripts (as in "the aformentioned legislation"). Not a single one has been penalised by me. But what on earth pushed the students into this archaic speak (how often have any of them used the word before, I wonder)?
Nerves must be the answer, I guess. But it's a very odd idiolect that results.