Penelope Grundle is a life coach, New York Times best-selling author and twice-Editor of Australian Vogue. She is also NUPSA’s resident advice columnist, in accordance with the terms of her Community Service Order (Crimes [Sentencing Procedure] Act 1999).


 

Bon juillet, my little sapphires! My goodness, is it July already? Time, She moves with such impatience now; having barely recovered from the excitement of the winter solstice (with all its orgiastic devotions), I’m now preparing for the spring equinox, an even grander and more pornographic affair.

Ah, the rigours of ritual… One day you’re spreading sheaves of wheat on the floor to welcome Demeter and the harvest, and the next you’re hanging keys in every doorway – in a house with eighty-seven rooms, no less – for the amusement of Hekate and her ghostly retinue. Even with Lorde and Ariana helping (if you could call it that: the two won’t stop lip-sync battling in my kitchen), it’s a lengthy and laborious task.

And of course, by the time I’ve penned my next best-seller, made the rounds of the New York gala season and finally settled all that legal nonsense with Gina… well, then it’s July! Here we find ourselves.

Still, you mustn’t think me despondent, dear things. Life, for all its little pinpricks, is a source of constant joy, pleasure, mystery and transcendence. To keep these all in balance is hard at times, but that’s what makes it so rewarding. And I’m always finding little tricks to make things easier: I recently discovered, for example, a gorgeous new oak-and-obsidian altar with ankle stirrups and a retractable slant! That’s going to make my next Bacchanalia a breeze, darling. (Receiving the Horned God for hours at a time can be murder on one’s lower back.)

And of course, it goes without saying that – no matter how busy life can get – I will always have time to hear your concerns, my little sparrows. When the winds are bitter cold, fly home to mama and tell her all about it.

 

Dear Penny,

Like many other PhD students, I do some casual work marking undergraduate essays and assignments. Since I’m often sitting and marking all day (and since so many of them are so awful), do you have any advice on how I can stay sane and keep my faith in humanity?

Sincerely,

Slowly Going Mad

 

Dear SGM,

Oh my darling, what drudgery! And I feel your pain, I really do. Just recently, Tom Cruise showed up at my door (despite my best attempts at child-proofing it) with the draft of his latest novel in hand – some joyless Scientological affair – and asked if I’d lend my authorial eye and look over it for him. Though thoroughly resistant to the idea, I did at least thumb through it out of politeness, but the whole thing was so appallingly unreadable (and much of it in an alien dialect, not to mention Tom’s own handwriting) that I was compelled to hurl it into the fireplace as a matter of civic duty.

He was furious, of course. Thankfully, a pair of Thetans came along with catch poles, squirrelled him into a small cage and left. All in a day, I suppose.

So, for your sake and mine, here are some tips for keeping one’s serenity and grace (or at the very least, one’s marbles) in the face of abject illiteracy.

 

Alternate hot and cold.

If you’re going to read through forty undergraduate essays, approximately four of which represent an actual attempt at improving oneself, then of course you’re going to end up questioning the very nature and purpose of modern civilisation – and whether it may not be easier to just, say, set fire to your own house and dance hysterically among the flames.

It’s important, then, that you have a ‘heat sink’ of sorts: a shut-off valve, a source of genuine inspiration you can turn to when you feel your faith in humanity crumbling mid-sentence. Mercifully, there are quite a few of these to discover; the world, you’ll find, is actually filled with all manner of wondrous thinkers and dreamers and artisans and philosophers, whose amusements and creations are immediately restorative. There are, as I like to say, three Tilda Swintons for every Kellyanne Conway.

So when you’re at your wits’ end, watch a TED Talk. (Especially if it’s one of mine; I give good TED, darling.) Read the works of Douglas Adams – a man of such exquisite irony, taken from us much too early. Listen to some Joni Mitchell, or Carole King. Think of them as intellectual sorbet: palette cleansers to wash the taste of part-time Arts student from your mouth. Intersperse them between essays, or at five- or ten-minute intervals, as required. Alternate hot and cold. Joy and misery.

 

Use backhanded compliments.

If one is to navigate a teeming labyrinth of idiocy (as I have often done) and come out the other side unscathed, a quick and capable backhand is required.

The backhanded compliment has a long and storied history among the academic elite, and is still the weapon of choice for Oxford professors and erudite daughters of royalty alike. The concept is simple: take some point of critique (or an outright insult, if warranted) and then upholster it lavishly in the parlance of praise, so it observes, at least cosmetically, all the standards of etiquette and decorum. A rebuke delivered in this fashion can be devastating, but here I would advise you to employ it more gently as a form of instruction, challenging a student’s academic indolence while sating your own desire to knock their lights out.

While I’m not familiar with the specifics of your students’ essays (and thank the goddess for that), here are some generic examples to get you started:

  • While your interpretation of the text has no clear basis in reality, I have nothing but admiration for the sheer lunacy of your argument.
  • A bold thesis, entirely unsupported by evidence. Like a grand roof and architraves, carefully designed and immaculately realised, without any actual house beneath them.
  • In reading your central argument, I am reminded of the early designs of the great Leonardo da Vinci: untested, incomplete and patently absurd.
  • Such passion, such conviction! I’m sure it took exceptional courage for you to write your name at the top of this and submit it as knowledge.
  • Well, I got a laugh out of it – and that’s the best medicine, so they say.
  • This page is riddled with grammatical errors, but the endlessly elaborate font you’ve used certainly makes them harder to detect.
  • Not a bad attempt, but this paragraph is unclear. Have you considered typing with your fingers?

Opportunities to train one’s arm at the backhanded compliment (or rather, sharpen one’s tongue) can be difficult to find in learned company – but here, you have dozens of opportunities stacked on the table in front of you! So turn business into pleasure, darling. To quote the incomparable Julie Andrews (whom I have backhanded many times over the years): a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

 

Drink wine.

Sugar’s all well and good, but if the essays are that atrocious, you’ll probably need something a little stronger. Wine is a truly miraculous nectar; gifted by the god Dionysus (along with other niche pursuits, like cannibalism and sex in a forest), the fermented fruit of the vine has made repetitive labour – and marriage, by extension – bearable to the populace for thousands of years.

Now, I must add here that I do not condone gratuitous intoxication. The point of the exercise is preserve one’s sanity, not to assist it in unravelling. Everything in moderation, darling; balance should be the aim, in all things. But a simple glass of white (I’m rather partial to a good Verdelho or Riesling, as the mood takes me), after an hour or more of marking papers, can soften the sharpest edges of one’s annoyance, lubricate one’s imagination and invite a certain peaceful repose, all of which smooth the way for more harmonious endeavour.

In short, wine can prevent you plunging into an abyss of existential despair. And that’s a good thing, darling. (But do avoid reds, if you can. Reading a hundred pages of word salad is enough to give anyone a headache; the tannins will only make it worse.)

And if all that fails, have you considered wet work? So many terrible student essays, so many murderous tutors forced to mark them… There’s a market there, waiting to be captured.

 

Got a question for Penny? Write to us at nupsa@newcastle.edu.au and see it answered!

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