I have a new flatmate, Wesley from South Africa, he arrived late on Wednesday night with the new Italian teacher, Francesca (whom I have not yet met). I shared my fajitas with him on his first night, since then he seems to have been eating mainly pizzas. He met John on Thursday and had the traditional meal in the Arts Café/Zhabadushat, and yesterday he went to see Mamayev Kurgan (the big statue) with Francesca, Svetlana and Lana from Sovetskiy. He seems to be settling into the job well and adapting quickly to life in Russia.
I have been dividing my duties this week between my usual classes and my side job helping the Pedagogical University with the Olympiad. All my Tuesday lessons were cancelled, I had my normal schedule on Wednesday, and on Thursday I was at the university all day. I arrived at 11 and we were taken into the marking room, rows of tables for all the jury members to sit at as they went through the writing submissions. Yulia (one of the organisers) went through the criteria they were using (in Russian) and handed everyone one piece of work as an example. The task was to write an article for an international youth magazine in English on the theme of the path to success not being straight.
The example piece was very competent but packed full of English idioms which meant it did not sound very natural – clearly the student who wrote it had been revising idioms and found a lot connected to hard work and success! There were one or two other errors but after Yulia went through it commenting on and discussing each controversial issue, it finished with a respectable mark of 18 out of 20.
That was fine, but we had only marked 1 paper out of over 200, and each paper had to be marked twice by a different marker to ensure fairness. So Viktor started handing out bundles to each of the 16 or so jury members. I was not going to be marking, my job was slightly different. Any uncertainty over English usage or appropriate phrasing, grammar, punctuation or word choice, and the marker was supposed to raise their hand and check with me, and I would decide on these “hard cases” according to English as I know it is used.
Viktor and another lady were in charge of writing down the marks and ensuring each paper was marked twice by a different person. There were two other women responsible for collecting papers once they had been marked and handing them to Victor’s team. Yulia and Lera were more supervisory and not in the room very often, though Yulia did check some of the marking to ensure it reflected the criteria.
We probably started a little after mid-day and I was scampering around the room like a hamster. Some markers barely consulted me at all, others used me frequently, often we had discussions about the issue, and many of them were very hard for me to say one way or another. Because English is generally a pretty flexible language, and the task specified the style should be informal and colloquial (appropriate for a youth magazine) I found myself often saying “yes, that’s ok” or “yes, you hear that all the time” and some of the markers complained they had to find some mistakes or they would be giving everyone a mark of 20! But they were all interested in my opinions and grateful for my help.
We broke for dinner (in groups) between 2 and 4pm – we went in a different room where a set meal had been prepared for us, this was my first encounter with buckwheat, which is a very popular grain in Russian cooking. I tried a few grains but didn’t find it very palatable. The juice – orange and stewed fruit – was nice, but there wasn’t much else in the meal that I could really eat.
The school texted to ask if I would be finished by 6.30 so I could do a lesson for them at 7 – I checked with Victor who said no, we’d be lucky to get away by 8.30 or 9. When 8.30 arrived Lera offered me the opportunity to leave them to finish off, but I felt like we were a team and I didn’t want to abandon everyone, so I voluntarily stayed on. In the end we started winding down around 10pm and eventually reached the last few papers. I left shortly before 11pm.
The next day, Friday, I did my normal classes at the school, and Saturday morning I was not required at the university until 3pm, so I had two early classes I could complete – my office had to make other arrangements for the late lessons. On Saturday my job was as part of the technical appeals committee. There were two students who had appealed their marks, though one of them was persuaded to accept the jury’s findings by agreement before the committee hearing started. The other student had made 3 errors, one he accepted (a punctuation mistake), the other two he disputed. He had been penalised for using “aim for” rather than “aim at” – but I explained that “aim for” is very commonly used in English, so the committee agreed this mistake would be rescinded. The second one was more difficult, ostensibly whether you could use the verb “to graduate” with an object or if you needed to use it with the preposition “from”. I confirmed that “to graduate university” or “to graduate college” was often used, commonly in North America but occasionally UK English too. However I wasn’t happy with the structure the student had used: “he graduated one of the best ones” – I thought “from” would be a more correct usage there. However the difficulty was if we accepted the principle that you could use an object in some situations, we couldn’t really argue it’s right in some cases but not in others. The benefit of the doubt went to the student, and the overall outcome was his mark was raised from 18 to 19.
The committee hearing itself was a strange ceremony. It was being recorded so we were told to arrange ourselves in a “picturesque way” – I sat next to Vladimir Ilyich facing the camera, with Yulia, Lera and Margarita on a row perpendicular to us. Vladimir Ilyich made some introductory words then Lera read out the citation, and Yulia explained the issue. She made a proposal and everyone at the table raised their hand to vote (I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to or not, but not wanting to be left out, I just copied everyone else). Lera later told me this was a tradition that was hanging over from Soviet times, it wasn’t clear from the protocols if a vote was required but they always did one anyway. Then the student was called in, the finding was explained to them and they were given a document to sign to confirm they accepted it.
For the second student I had to explain why we were reinstating the mark for “aim for” and “graduated one of…” but also to make clear my doubts about the usage. Fortunately I was allowed to do this in English. The student was grateful – this would elevate his mark into the prizewinners.
And that was it. I was invited to dinner again, and this time they served chicken which I was able to eat (though they served it on buckwheat). I was invited back for the closing ceremony the following day.