The “Big Read”

I am off tomorrow afternoon to “The Big Read” and won’t be back till late Sunday, so I won’t be posting again until Monday.

“What is ‘The Big Read’?,” you ask. (Or maybe you don’t ask—but if you keep reading, you’re going to find out.)

Every spring, all the students who have been accepted to every University of California campus take a writing placement test that consists of an essay written in a two-hour time block in response to a 1-2 page reading passage. I’ll stop there with the description, but you can learn more (lots and lots more), if you click here.

This year, that will amount to about 19,000 students, give or take a few hundred.

Next comes the gathering of the writing faculties. We start swooping into Berkeley on Wednesday (room leaders) and Thursday (table leaders), until the full contingent of 300± is present Friday morning.

After that, we more or less spend three full days shut up in large, overly warm rooms reading and scoring essay after essay with occasional breaks for delicious, but mostly high-sugar snacks (which unfortunately tend to stupify, rather than revitalize). By the end of the three days, every essay will have been read and scored a minimum of two times. Those with marginal or discrepant scores will get additional readiings.

The essays themselves vary widely in content and style, though certain tropes will become unbearably familiar before the weekend is over. Regardless of what the essay question actually asks, several hundred students will spend several pages explaining (often erroneously) the use of onomatapoeia in the reading passage, having been assured by some AP teacher somewhere that this is what truly distinguished writers write about. Several thousand students will work Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet or The Grapes of Wrath or all three into their essays, oftentimes in rawther unusual ways. And we scorers of essays will soldier bravely through, doing our darndest to give each essay a fair reading, no matter how mind-numbing the process becomes. (Really, we do. We know that each essay represents a living, breathing young adult on the threshold of great intellectual adventures, who deserves respect for what she has learned and support to take that learning further.)

Late Sunday, we all head home, having completed some 45,000 or so essay readings and having gained an average of five pounds each from the combined effects of endless sitting and high-calorie noshing.

Wish me well, won’t you?