Assignment by algorithm

2 minute read

Another teaching-related post today, this one pointing to a post by Marc Bousquet: “Robots are grading your papers!” It’s about the sterile repetition of the same style of writing in college courses. As the linked post discusses, research is showing that algorithms can produce the same grades for such work as human graders. What does this mean about the typical college-level writing assignment?

It seems possible that what really troubles us about the success of machine assessment of simple writing forms isnt the scoring, but the writing itselfforms of writing that dont exist anywhere in the world except school. Its reasonable to say that the forms of writing successfully scored by machines are already-mechanized formswriting designed to be mechanically produced by students, mechanically reviewed by parents and teachers, and then, once transmuted into grades and sorting of the workforce, quickly recycled. As Evan Watkins has long pointed out, the grades generated in relation to this writing stick around, but the writing itself is made to disappear. Like magic? Or like concealing the evidence of a crime?

Is this the same as my feeling last week that instructors shouldn’t assign work they don’t want to read (“Against onanistic essays”)? Grading by computer does require clear objectives and outcomes, which probably increases the overall learning. We want students who can surpass the form, but they need to be able to understand and meet the form first.

UPDATE (2013-01-16): The rest of the article has some really good insight about the nature of teaching scholarly writing. For example:

So why dont we teach that relationship to scholarly discourse, the kind represented by the skill of summary in Howards research? Why dont we teach students to compose a representative review of scholarship on a question? On the sound basis of a lit review, we could then facilitate an attempt at a modest original contribution to a question, whether it was gathering data or offering new insight.
The fact is, I rarely run into students at the B.A. or M.A. level who have been taught the relationship to source material represented by compiling a representative literature review. Few even recognize the term.

Bousquet also draws attention to the way that hackneyed conventions of journalism have contributed to poor teaching of writing. I think his take is elitist and counterproductive in some ways, but he is certainly correct that good models for nonfiction writing are not widely used in the teaching of writing.