There’s been a lot of buzz lately on my RSS feed about automated essay-grading software, or “Robo-Readers.” Several weeks ago, Inside Higher Ed published an article announcing “A Win for the Robo-Readers.” The article very briefly presented and commented on the results of a study conducted by the University of Akron, which found that Robo-Readers can effectively evaluate student writing on a quantitative level. In other words, they can determine whether sentences follow proper grammar and mechanical rules.
The author of the Akron study and dean of the Akron college of Ed., Mark D. Shermis, admits that comp classes shouldn’t completely rely upon the software for grading. They should be used as a supplement to grading, to ease workloads.
I agreed with the article and with Sermis’ statements about the Robo-Reader tools until the very end of the piece. And then I saw something that I found rather troubling:
The Akron education dean acknowledges that AES software has not yet been able to replicate human intuition when it comes to identifying creativity. But while fostering original, nuanced expression is a good goal for a creative writing instructor, many instructors might settle for an easier way to make sure their students know how to write direct, effective sentences and paragraphs.
“If you go to a business school or an engineering school, they’re not looking for creative writers,” Shermis says. “They’re looking for people who can communicate ideas. And that’s what the technology is best at” evaluating.
Hang on just a second. Let’s take another pass at that. I want to make sure you’re actually getting this:
“But while fostering original, nuanced expression is a good goal for a creative writing instructor…”
Since when is nuanced expression exclusive to creative writing? The class that made me see the importance of nuanced expression–articulating subtle differences–was not a creative writing class. It was a technical writing class. You know… a class that perhaps a student in a business school or engineering school might take.
Sure, students need to understand how to craft well-written, grammatically and mechanically correct sentences. I couldn’t agree more. But what about content? Meaning? Clarity of thought? Isn’t that what “communicating ideas” is all about? Can we really consider writing communication if it abides by the rules of proper grammar and syntax but holds no real meaning? (Well, sure–if you’ve been reading a lot of Marshall McLuhan and suddenly feel like content is now completely irrelevant. But I digress.)
I recently looked back over some essays I wrote while I was a freshman and sophomore in undergrad (not something I’d recommend, by the way–they made me wonder how I ever managed to get into a good grad program). I had pages of grammatically correct sentences that carried little-to-no meaning. Gems like this example from an analysis of the 1975 film Nashville:
It has been stated that Altman uses Nashville to display his particular feelings toward government. The character of Hal Phillip Walker, the replacement party presidential candidate who is only present through a voice projected from a loudspeaker, represents aspects of the ideal government Altman desires (Bryne 24). Hal Phillip Walker’s character appears to be quite simple and a complete opposite from the traditional politician. In the 1970s it seems as though Americans wanted to remain as far away as possible from the type of government they had always known.
Yikes. Whaaaa?? Words… strung together in sentences… that say absolutely nothing.
This is the kind of writing I get from my students now. The majority of my students can structure a sentence, but they struggle (just as I did) with putting those sentences together into well-formed paragraphs that hold real meaning. I’m anxious to see how we might teach that with an automated system.
While I’m excited about the possibilities of using technology to make our teaching practices more effective… I don’t see Robo-Readers coming to my rescue anytime soon.