THE BLOG
04/08/2013 06:23 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2013

Essay Grading Software is Insulting

A recent New York Times article reported the exciting new development of essay-grading software. This innovation, coming courtesy of the EdX people from Harvard and MIT, may have finally closed the diminishing gap between "educational reform" and parody. The only possible response is, "Are you kidding me?"

Comments following the article and several blog posts, Huffington and elsewhere, cited the many disturbing aspects of this latest technological nonsense. Many folks have properly recognized the near certainty that essay-grading software would find some of the world's greatest essays to be inadequate. One can only imagine what the machine might say about David Foster Wallace, James Joyce or other notable and eccentric writers.

Others have observed that art is not mechanical -- that no software can or will ever be able to discern the stuff that rests between the lines of poetry and prose. Anyone who loves language, particularly the craft of written language, knows that beauty and meaning are created through both commission and omission. The things left unsaid, or the ambiguous, evocative clues, are as or more important than what is committed to paper. It is analogous to music, where the most profound moments might be found in the silence at the end of a phrase, or the dominant chord that refuses to yield to the expected tonic. Wonderful language and wonderful music require the active engagement of the listener or reader. Leaving room for us to make what we will of it is what makes either form of expression interesting.

Years ago, at a reading on a lovely autumn evening in Chelsea, VT, the late great writer Grace Paley was asked by an eager student, "What does your poem mean?" Grace responded by saying, "I don't know. What do you think?" She also offered the best advice to writers that I've ever heard: A particularly earnest young woman asked, "What advice can you offer to an aspiring poet?" Grace responded dryly, "Keep a low overhead." I digress.

There is also the political dimension of this development. The EdX people (are they really people, or machines coming up with these ideas?) are the tip of a larger iceberg that threatens to dehumanize and digitize a significant part of education, from pre-school to post-graduate. In this era of slavish devotion to technology, online education is a boom industry. Billions of dollars are at stake. Everything is assessed on its "scalability" and we are all supposed to believe that the digital representation of life is actually the same thing as life. The essay-grading software idea is taking this to a "whole new level," to borrow a phrase from those who have nothing else to say about anything. Anyone who designs a "program" to replace real human engagement should be forced to go out to dinner with their computer and see how things go after a few glasses of good wine.

But here's what I've not read or heard in the chorus of boos arising from thoughtful educators and sentient humans of all kinds: Essay-grading software is a horrifying affront to the students whose work is thusly judged.

While my primary responsibilities are "administrative," I teach at least once a year. I also regard my relationships with students as the primary motivation for returning to work every morning. The rest of the work is necessary, but anyone who works in a school should do so primarily because of the deep privilege to know and love kids -- of all ages. This should be equally true of everyone, professor or administrator, who is lucky enough to work at a college or university.

I love the students in my school -- every one of them, no matter how much they may try on occasion to be unlovable. Being invited into their lives is a gift. When a student writes an essay, or a piece of fiction, or a poem, it must be honored with the attention our love and respect demands. It is only by reading and listening to our students that we can know what they care about, how they're thinking about things, what experiences we can design for them. The least important aspects of their work are the things that software can analyze. Grammar, spelling, punctuation, syntax, the extent to which their writing conforms to "standard" essay structure . . . Yawn. Who cares? I want to know their ideas, their spirits, their hearts, their doubts and their fears. I want to know what they saw that I didn't. I want to learn from them just as I hope they will learn from me.

It is a deep, damaging insult to dismiss a student's work by sending it to a machine for a response. Ordinarily, a good teacher's response to student work takes only a small fraction of the time that it took the student to create the work. Are we so devoid of consideration that we see that as just too much trouble? But I also don't care if a student has dashed off a quick, last minute piece of work in response to an assignment. It still deserves the dignity of my full attention, especially if I ever hope the student might offer more.

Any teacher who resorts to this nonsense should find a new profession.