How to Write for our Robot Masters

I just read a piece in the New York Times called “Facing a Robo-Grader? Just Keep Obfuscating Mellifluously.” According to a recent study, automated software can grades essays with “virtually identical levels of accuracy,” as human graders but at a rate of 16,000 essays in 20 seconds. It sounds scary, and you can imagine the evil administrative imagination dreaming of a college system run by a handful of professors and a legion of robots. Robots don’t want health care and won’t demand freedom of speech protections.

This is also good news to Conservatives who suspect that English professors are not doing anything very difficult. Only it’s not, really, unless you are really cynical about how far we might go in denaturing education. The robots, it turns out, are a little limited right now. Les Perelman (from MIT) sums up the robot’s problems: “[T]he automated reader can be easily gamed, is vulnerable to test prep, sets a very limited and rigid standard for what good writing is, and will pressure teachers to dumb down writing instruction.” That sounds familiar.

None of these things would necessarily be a problem for our hypothetical evil administrator dreaming of electric sheep; in fact, the automated grader seems to be ideally suited for our commercial age. It also sounds like a Republican: “The e-Rater’s biggest problem, [Perelman] says, is that it can’t identify truth. He tells students not to waste time worrying about whether their facts are accurate, since pretty much any fact will do as long as it is incorporated into a well-structured sentence. ” Maybe well-structured sentence is pushing it.

The software is vulnerable to strategies that A students have long used to seduce their harried teachers. It prefers long over short words, sentences, paragraphs,and essays, for example, if for no other reason than counting is one of its strong suits.  It asks that writers stick to the college essay clichés. There can be no sentences that begin with “or” or “and” and no sentence fragments. It’s an awful tool but (call me cynical) I predict that, given our really awful political climate, it’ll be openly used to replace English teachers in 5 years.

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 I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

One Thought on “How to Write for our Robot Masters

  1. The World Political field has gone to crap over the past few elections due to lack of civility. We need to stand up against that and take back our society from Big Pharma, Big Tobbacco, Big Insurance and really just big corporations. It’s time for our elections to stop being bought out.

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