‘Unhand Me, Grey-Beard Loon!’

Courtney_Recker_2017_(Unsplash)

By Courtney Recker courtneyrecker (https://unsplash.com/photos/-EnI0H6Wm6s) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The power of language, of writing: “The Wedding-Guest stood still.” Every semester, I use this example with my writing students. “‘There was a ship,’ quoth” the mariner. And the Wedding-Guest listens to the end before turning away:

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

That’s what writing does, real and effective writing: It conveys a message from writer to reader. It is action or process. It is never (to quote Paolo Freire, though admittedly out of context) “motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable…. Words are emptied of their concreteness and become a hollow, alienated, and alienating verbosity.”

I thought of both Coleridge and Freire as I listened to a piece on Weekend Edition Saturday yesterday morning. Called “More States Opting to ‘Robo-Grade’ Student Essays By Computer,” it contains one of the most ridiculous statements I have ever heard or read about automated grading of writing–or about what good writing is, for that matter:

“If someone is smart enough to pay attention to all the things that an automated system pays attention to, and to incorporate them in their writing, that’s no longer gaming, that’s good writing,” he says. “So you kind of do want to give them a good grade.”

Uh, no. That’s not a way to produce good writing and I certainly wouldn’t want it to get a good grade.

Not surprisingly, that’s from someone at Educational Testing Service, one of the places making money off of computer “evaluation” of writing. He’s named Nitin Madnani and I am sure he has never read Pedagogy of the Oppressed or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. To him, writing is “formulated, sprawling on a pin.”

His comment is inserted into the story after the incomparable Les Perelman makes mincemeat of computerized writing assessment, as he had been doing for years, through a description of his Babel Generator which produces nonsense that’s perfect for the computers. Here’s an example from an essay I just generated:

Authorship has not, and undoubtedly never will be generous, blustering, and erroneous. Humankind will always diagnose assessment; many with hagiolatry but a few of organisms. Authorship which preaches amicable insinuations but is menaced lies in the search for semiotics as well as the field of semiotics. Due to the fact that composition accedes comments which divulge manifestation, society should circumscribe fashion immediately.

Whatever Madnani may say, that is not writing, good or bad. It’s a bunch of words in a pattern on a screen. Nobody should be rewarded for creating it–unless it’s presented as a piece of semi-abstract art.

As B. F. Skinner writes in his widely misunderstood Verbal Behavior, “The behaviors of speaker and listener taken together compose what may be called a total verbal episode.” The same is true of writer and reader. When the reader cannot “behave” beyond sorting, no true ‘writing episode’ can exist. What Madnani is talking about cannot be considered writing at all. It is simply the creation of a meaningless artifact–as Perelman so effectively demonstrates.

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