The Algorithm Didn’t Like My Essay–The New York Times

computer reading a bookIn a recent New York Times, there was an article by Randall Stross,The Algorithm Didn’t Like My Essay.” I found it interesting because I had posted back in May on a similar article about “robograding.” Stross writes about how consistent computer-scored essays are to human-scored essays in standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He then postulates that using computerized essay grading could free up human resources to interact with students on more meaningful issues at more meaningful levels.

While I don’t disagree with him on a philosophical level–what teacher doesn’t want ways to work smarter and not burn out on repetitive tasks–the fact remains that at present there is no substitute for human interaction when it comes to written expression. For the computerized scoring functions, the grammar and style checker that comes standard with Word does about as well as the standalone programs that supposedly excel at finding errors or at rating levels of sophistication. But none of these programs actually “reads” what a student has written. They can’t detect irony, they can’t identify falsehood, and they can’t recognize empty ideas.

The dilemma is that there are certain assessments that cannot be done quickly or automatically–at least not if they are to mean anything. Perhaps we should eliminate written essays from any kind of standardized tests. Stroll points out that even human scorers of such tests typically spend three minutes or less on each essay. Having been one of these scorers, I would agree with that estimate. In such settings, you train yourself to look for very specific things in a piece of writing; most of them relate more to modes of expression rather than modes of thought. It reminds me of Billy Crystal’s line from years ago, “it is better to look good than to feel good, dahling.”

In the next week, the students in my summer online composition course will turn in their rough drafts of their first essay, and they will then spend two days reading each others’ writing and commenting on it (as will I). Then they will go back to the drawing board (I hope) and spend time wrestling not just with comma splices but with the ideas that need further development. I am just nosy enough to want to know what they really thought about the readings I chose for the course, and I am naive enough to believe our future leaders in business, technological innovation, parenting, and education will be those who were more concerned with the content of their ideas than with the “color” of those ideas’ skin (apologies to Martin Luther King, Jr.).

College Degrees Are Valuable Even for Careers That Don’t Require Them –

College Degrees Are Valuable Even for Careers That Don’t Require Them –

This editorial was in yesterday’s New York Times and is an interesting companion piece to a couple of articles I commented on a few weeks ago, “Debating the Value of College in America” and “Your So-Called Education.”

Debating the Value of College in America

At Asbury, we have been having strong, deep discussions this year among our faculty as we have been evaluating our expectations for our liberal arts core curriculum–the “major that everybody majors in” at schools such as ours.

As such, I’ve been attuned to how many articles and editorial pieces have been published this year related to this very subject.  In this week’s The New Yorker, Louis Menand lays out some of the major issues in this discussion in a very readable essay.  It’s titled “Live and Learn: Why We Have College.”  Check it out.

Irrational Optimism?

Published: May 14, 2011
Why are college grads irrationally optimistic about the future?

I also read this column today in The New York Times, which talks about the human habit of embracing optimism in the face of pessimistic statistics.  I found it especially interesting, given that a recent class of mine read Candide, or Optimism, by Voltaire. Candide  is itself a satiric reflection of the philosophical optimism popularized at the time by Gottfried Leibniz.

Your So-Called Education

I read an interesting opinion piece in today’s New York Times about the decline in the quality of a typical undergraduate education.  I don’t agree with all of the conclusions the authors reach, but I think they identify some key issues in the way we as a nation look at college these days.  You can follow the link below to the article.

Your So-Called Education


Published: May 14, 2011

New research questions how much you really learn in college.

My response to Jacques Steinberg’s column

In “Plan B,” Jacques Steinberg writes

“Such skills [communication and appropriate work behavior] are ranked among the most desired — even ahead of educational attainment — in many surveys of employers. In one 2008 survey of more than 2,000 businesses in Washington State, employers said entry-level workers appeared to be most deficient in being able to “solve problems and make decisions,” “resolve conflict and negotiate,” “cooperate with others” and “listen actively.”

Yet despite the need, vocational programs, which might teach such skills, have been one casualty in the push for national education standards, which has been focused on preparing students for college.”

While I agree with much of what Steinberg writes, I find it somewhat odd that he assigns “solve problems and make decisions,” “resolve conflict and negotiate,” “cooperate with others” and “listen actively” to vocational programs.

I am a professor of English at a liberal arts university, and I have at times bemoaned the overspecialization of majors and programs, which blurs the line between education and training. The very things that Steinberg thinks students need more “training” in are precisely the qualities that, say, an English major develops in four years of literary studies (a vocationally “useless” pursuit).

So, I guess the next time I’m asked the proverbial question, “what can you do with an English major?” I will answer, “you can solve problems, deal with complex moral decisions, negotiate, think critically, communicate well in speech and writing, cooperate with other, and listen actively.” All things that, surprise, you need in the world of work.

Please, please, let’s not solve this by creating majors in Active Listening.

Interesting Column on College Education in the New York Times

Realized it’s been a long time since I posted anything, so I thought I’d get back into the swing of things now that the Spring semester has wrapped.  Interestingly enough, I saw the linked article in today’s New York Times.  I think this is the first time I felt compelled to comment on an online column.  I’ll include that as well.

Plan B: Skip College