On March 31, 2017, The West Australian newspaper reported that, ‘Year 12 exam markers have raised concerns that many students used inappropriate language in the creative writing section of last year’s English exam and their choice of subject matter was too graphic’. The section of the article that enlarges on the creative writing performance of candidates in the exam is taken verbatim from the public version of the School Curriculum and Standards Authority’s (SCASA) Summary report of the 2016 ATAR course examination: English (PDF).
A key point highlighted by Bethany Hiatt in The West article was the comment that ‘The subject matter of imaginative writing needs careful consideration’. While Hiatt focused on comments targeting the use of ‘inappropriate language’ and the nature of student writing to include ‘graphic and sensational content’, the examiners did note in their report that the scheduling of the History exam close to the English exam may have had an effect on candidates’ responses.
The headline of Hiatt’s article informs the public that the examiners were ‘shocked by “graphic” language’ but the report itself is not indicative of such emotion. This raises a public perception such as this facebook posting from local author and creative writing lecturer, David Whish-Wilson: ‘looks more like markers not being up with the edgy nature of much current YA lit’. Several commentators on Whish-Wilson’s thread expressed opinions that the problem lay with the sensibilities of the markers:
… interesting, as they read Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, and Gail Jones Sorry, both full of so-called bad language, so why is it problem? Surely the ATAR markers have come across it before? Maybe they need to get some more worldly ATAR markers.
I don’t believe students should be penalised for tackling difficult subjects creatively.
What this … highlights to me is how much more creatively intelligent many of our high school students are than the “education machine”.
The advice we gave our students (I teach in a public school) was to not get too graphic because a good percentage of the markers came from private (read: religious) schools who might find their use of “bad” language confronting and inappropriate and mark them down for it. Having been to a fair few moderation meetings where I’ve observed some of these teachers over the years, I think it was necessary advice under the circumstances.
The general tenor of this commentary complains that the system is somehow at fault and that the creative writing component of the course is being unfairly penalised by the ATAR markers, even though the commentators have sighted neither the material submitted in examination, nor the full details of the report. (Most not even sighting the full article in The West.) Moreover, a perception is held that there is a preponderance of markers who, for reasons of where they work, have sensibilities not suited to the task.
While the sensational nature of the article in The West fuels these flames, it is probably instructive to note that, in their report, the markers qualified their position on candidates’ language use by the phrase ‘contextually inappropriate’. This suggests that, where the context warrants it, profane language would be found to be acceptable.
A writer’s skill is demonstrated by their command over the use of language in order to create a desired, usually emotional, narrative effect in the reader, and the markers are probably right to point out that ‘contextually inappropriate’ language weakens a piece of writing and adds to the effect of ‘depicting human relationships simplistically and sensationally’.
In other words, it’s not the use of the language itself that is problematic, but its usage.