04/06/2013 01:45 pm ET Updated Jun 06, 2013

LOL: Grading College Essays With a Computer Program?

This morning, I read an article in the New York Times about a revolutionary new software program that will soon become available to the public. As soon as released, it will be widely adopted to teach MOOCS -- those large online classes that people can take from world-famous professors. What is it?

A software that will grade student essays.

Of course, the comments section is off-the-hook with crazy paragraph-long screeds, either for or against the adoption of this technology. Most people worry about the quality of education -- the ability to "game" the machines, the fact that nothing can replace real-live instructors. There was even a famous academic who debunked the program with nonsense gobbled-gook, which then received quite a high score. And indeed there is a high-profile petition floating around -- one even signed by that notorious, notable linguist Noam Chomsky who always seems to be taking stands on everything!

The debates are all about drawing a line in the sand: a line of culture and merit and standards. This is all well and good until you realize that this line is constantly being redrawn, rubbed out, revisited. There was a line in the sand drawn 300 years ago when people freaked out about the first novels and the possibility of mechanical reproduction. It spelled the end of real learning; it represented chaos and disorder; dunces in long-nosed Mardi Gras masks could suddenly leap out from every book shelf and expose their privacies to the public at large. And indeed every forecasted freaky-deaky-crazy-thing that could possibly be imagined has come to pass. The naysayers were right.

Being right, though, did not change the course of technology. Mechanically reproduced books and all that they spawned -- computers, television, radio -- have transformed our world and our ideas of literacy. We have indeed produced a new illiteracy (as so many people rightly imagined) but we also, paradoxically, have produced a new literacy hatched from that illicit union with the Mardi Gras Masquer who leaped out of the bookshelf of the mind.

Did you know that the word "mob" was decried as the sign of this new illiteracy? Did you know it was entirely vulgar? For Samuel Johnson, the man who created the first dictionary in the English language, the fact that the word "mob" would become a normal part of the lexicon was a sign of intellectual decline. Now the mob thinks "mob" is entirely okay word. And so, too, is "okay." It's okie dokie.

So what of the descent into illiteracy? This, too, has passed.

I was having lunch with the great poet Adrienne Rich a couple of years before she passed. We somehow started talking about how technology impacts our lives. And we talked about how my students would send me notes by e-mail with their crazy Internet lingo and misspellings. We had one of those conversations back and forth that only writers can have.


Poets above all other writers love to collect this kind of verbal junk and I was glad to hold my own in this exchange with this amazing woman. Rich confided to me that she's a voluminous letter writer but, nowadays, the letters have become e-mails and she archives them all. Yes, when Adrienne Rich writes, she backs that shit up. When she burns her letters, it doesn't mean that she sets them on fire. LOL.

When we find her stash of letters, we'll be able to read these electronic missives in a hundred new ways. We can do key word searches, for instance. We'll be able to read them using complex algorithms. We can look for patterns. There will be a new art to the act of skimming. It won't even be called "skimming" in the conventional sense. It will just be reading.

For me, that basically means, then, that instead of raging about the death of standards (as if there were a line in the sand to be crossed) we should recognize that we live in a world where writing and reading are evolving, just as they already have been evolving, at a shocking pace. That means that if there is a machine that will scan what we read and a machine that will also produce writing, than the great writing -- the stuff that has the best chance of survival -- is the stuff that negotiates its relationship to this technology.

So what does that mean for a mystery writer in the digital age? IMHO: I don't know. AAMOF: I'm willing to find out.