Rarely have I come across such a smart indictment of the teaching of writing within educational settings as this. In addition to providing a well reasoned critique, Marc Bousquet advocates for “a different writing pedagogy,” that is the teaching of authentic academic and some forms of professional writing through concentrating on the literature review and its foundational relationship to academic writing.
In addition to providing the opening of the article, below, I cannot restrain myself from giving my favorite passage, which delighted me with a shock of recognition, as a former teacher of writing and literature who has all too often found mechanical writing and junk forms of writing and thinking passing for sound work, even among promising students and at the college level: — Kelly Searsmith
Mechanical writing instruction in mechanical writing forms produces mechanical writers who experience two kinds of dead end: the dead end of not passing the mechanical assessment of their junk-instructed writing, and the dead end of passing the mechanical assessment, but not being able to overcome the junk instruction and actually learn to write.
As bad as this pedagogy’s failure is its successes. Familiar to most college faculty is the first-year writing student who is absolutely certain of their writing performance. She believes good writing is encompassed by surface correctness, a thesis statement, and assiduous quote-farming that represents “support” for an argument ramified into “three main points.”
In reality, these five-paragraph essays are near-useless hothouse productions. They bear the same relationship to future academic or professional writing as picking out “Chopsticks” bears to actually playing music at any level. Which is to say, close to none.
Students of any new skill do need mechanics to help them master the basics, and in essay writing this can mean providing a simple form and a simple process for them to fill and follow (e.g., the five-paragraph essay “junk” genre; focus on sentence- level correctness and clarity; or the same linear writing process steps every time, as if writing by recipe). But teaching these scaffolded forms and processes without pointing out that they are props or helping students to master them and move on to what comes next is a real mistake. Despite the pressures on teachers that Bousquet acknowledges, we can do better. We should. We must.
by Marc Bousquet / Chronicle of Higher Education / 18 April 2012
A just-released report confirms earlier studies showing that machines score many short essays about the same as human graders. Once again, panic ensues: We can’t let robots grade our students’ writing! That would be so, uh, mechanical. Admittedly, this panic isn’t about Scantron grading of multiple-choice tests, but an ideological, market- and foundation-driven effort to automate assessment of that exquisite brew of rhetoric, logic, and creativity called student writing. Without question, this study is performed by folks with huge financial stakes in the results, and they are driven by non-education motives. But isn’t the real question not whether the machines deliver similar scores, but why?
It seems possible that what really troubles us about the success of machine assessment of simple writing forms isn’t the scoring, but the writing itself–forms of writing that don’t exist anywhere in the world except school. It’s reasonable to say that the forms of writing successfully scored by machines are already-mechanized forms–writing 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?
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