Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Mechanized writing? 

(Crossposted last night on Liberty and Power.)

An essay on how silly our teaching of writing has become.
In Indiana this year, the junior-year English essay will be graded by computer, and similar experiments have been tried in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Oregon. The SAT and the ACT are planning to test the new computer-grading software as well. That is a reductio ad absurdum of the entire idea of learning. If this is knowledge, then truth and beauty reside only in ignorance.

Vantage Learning, which makes the writing-assessment software called Intellimetric, claims that it "shows more reliable and more consistent results across samples than human expert scorers." Of course "reliable" entails "accurate," and I daresay there is no way to establish that without begging all possible questions.

More to the point, perhaps, machines are cheaper: It costs perhaps $5 for a human being to evaluate an essay, $1 for a machine. And while it takes five to 10 minutes for a human to score an essay, the computer can apparently do it in two seconds.

The actual procedures that the software employs are presumably proprietary. But the dimensions that Intellimetric evaluates are these: (1) focus and unity; (2) development and elaboration; (3) organization and structure; (4) sentence structure; (5) mechanics and conventions.


The only real argument for the quality of the software is that it is "more reliable and accurate" than human evaluators. But the human evaluators have already transformed themselves into Intellimetric software: These are the military sheep � their minds both rigid and woolly � who invented and enforce the mind-numbing five-paragraph essay form.

Every child in the United States, more or less, is being taught to write and to think in this way. I teach these kids when they reach college. I try to tell them that the idea that there is some specifiable way to write an essay is just hoo-ha made up by some bureaucrat in 1987. This makes them nervous.

I am not particularly concerned about the youth of today; if the world goes to hell I don't really care. But I do care about coming to the middle of a semester and being forced, in order to make a living, to read 35 five-page papers written by thoroughly fried lamb chops whose writing style has been nurtured over the years by a computer.
The storyline includes a shot at NCLB as inducing computer grading of writing. And that certainly is a danger. But frankly writing at our university has fallen into such abuse that simple sentence structure has been lost. Creativity would be nourished by reading creative literature, great works handed down through the ages. As I've argued several times, good writing for me has four ingredients: learn how a sentence works (by which I mean, you should be able to diagram them -- after all, isn't that what the Intellimetric data is checking?); read great books; practice; and rewrite what you wrote.

Stephen says "We just started offering a capstone paper course to our students, and discovered that we have to do a lot more to develop basic expository and research skills." We do the same thing here. Sartwell would probably call us formulaic as well, but we're trying to teach how to write research, and just as we don't have young violinists imitate Jean-Luc Ponty or Isaac Stern, neither do we believe young economists will start out writing like, say, Russell Roberts. Making economics simple is the hardest part.