Writing Instruction in the Age of Digital Reproduction

CAN COMPUTERS TEACH CHILDREN TO write better? Michael Jenkins,who teaches language arts at Estancia Middle School in central New Mexico, tells the story of Maria (a pseudonym), who so struggled to put her ideas on paper that she used to cry whenever he gave the class a writing assignment. That was before Jenkins began using writing-instruction software that provides feedback on students’ essays and offers suggestions on how to improve them, all within seconds. By the end of the school year, Maria had more confidence in her writing abilities—and passed the writing portion of the state assessment test. “It’s not a cure-all, but what a difference it’s made in what the kids have shown they can do,” says Jenkins, who began using the software last year.

Greg Miller, www.sciencemag.org, January 19, 2009

Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former. To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose ‘sense of the universal equality of things’ has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction. Thus is manifested in the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing importance of statistics. The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.

Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Benjamin, writing in the 1930s, famously argued that mechanical reproduction fundamentally changed the work of art by transforming our sense of originality. The unique, singular object, with its “aura of originality” was superseded by the “transitoriness” of infinite reproducibility. The painting is replaced by photography and the film.

You see the very same tension in the emergence of software designed to asses student writing, a fear that the machine will strip out the individuality, the unique aura of individual expressiveness that was supposedly the goal of composition instruction. Benjamin argued, I think, that there was no going back; you can’t unscramble the egg.

Who’d want a culture without film and photography anyway? And painting has survived just fine. That might be a good way to think about this software too. It can assist students in those aspects of writing, most associated with our shared ethos of written communication. It can help much less with those ineffable qualities of writing that mark individual style.

The real question is economic and political, as Benjamin suggested. Will we be willing to invest our time and money, in other words, both individually and socially, in this complex set of tensions and desires, sharp concision and sloppy art, both irreconcilable and both necessary? Or will we use the machine to make excuses for denaturing education.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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