Friday, April 30, 2004

I've been volunteering for the last few years for the state round judging of the National History Day competition for Pennsylvania. They're held in May on the University Park campus of Penn State. In prior years, I helped with the judging in the junior and senior documentary tracks. It wasn't particularly onerous - I just showed up for the judging, and evaluated the documentaries, which couldn't be longer than fifteen minutes. It's an intense schedule - usually featuring the viewing of a dozen to two dozen documentaries in rapid succession, each of which have to be judged in near-real-time, then frantically scanning often quite lengthy bibliographic abstracts in between interviews with the teenaged documentarians - but not particularly challenging, intellectually speaking.

This year, I was unexpectedly transferred to the papers track due to a cancellation by one of their usual papers' judges. You obviously can't read and carefully evaluate a dozen to two dozen twenty-page papers in a single one-day sitting, in between interviews and conferences with the other two judges in your track, so they naturally send the papers ahead of time for a more leisurely evaluation. UPS dropped of said papers this morning.

I flipped through the pile, and found that almost all of them are by female authors, which I thought rather strange. The documentary tracks are usually pretty well gender-balanced, not that I think anybody's playing the affirmative action numbers or anything, just that history tends not, in my experience, to be particularly gender-biased either way.

I'm rather nervous about the whole prospect of papers-judging. I'm not a trained teacher, and my schoolwork back in the day was better on matters of substance than on structure and technicalities - aspects which the documentation suggests is a fairly important aspect of the expected evaluations. I managed to skim rather lightly over the whole secondary/primary sourcing issue while in documentaries, for instance, because primary sourcing for student historical documentaries tends to be pretty light on the ground. If in doubt, go with secondary, you know? I mean, where are they going to get primary audiovisual sources for something on 18th-century French science? Documentaries by their very nature emphasize presentation over technical scholarship. Papers tend to invert those two elements.

The judges are supposed to be teachers or historians, with considerable experience in exactly this sort of evaluation. What am I doing judging, then? I think they found my name on an old Phi Alpha Theta membership list, back when I still paid dues. Either that, or they were going through Penn State history department alumni lists. I'd be embarrassed at my lack of qualifications, except that many of my fellow-judges have turned out to be no more experienced than I - members of historical societies, employees of sponsoring corporations, other alumni, etc. I'd guess that no more than 65% of the judges were actual teachers. Part of that might be that if a teacher knows about the competition, there's a better than even chance that she's got at least one student in it, and thus is excluded from judging for conflict-of-interest reasons.

One of the elements upon which we are expected to judge is how well the student ties in her work with that year's theme. Oftentimes, the thematic requirement is barely acknowledged by the documentarians, or even worse, shoehorned into their subject of interest in a convoluted, ludicrous fashion. One year, when the theme was "Revolution, Reaction, and Reform", a student with an interest in sports among the handicapped, featured a back-breaking tangle of twists and turns to justify how handicapped access to golf courses was "revolutionary". This year's problem? None of the forms or documentation I've been sent so far mentions what the yearly theme *is*. Thank god for Google... "Exploration, Encounter, Exchange in History", is it? Well, that would explain the presence of at least one of those nouns in the titles of every single paper in the packet. The theme is always alliterative, and maddeningly vague. "Rights and Responsibilities", "Revolution, Reaction and Reform", "Exploration, Encounter, Exchange". Meh.

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