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Computer checker raises essay questions

Usually, I’m in favor of advances in technology to make our lives easier. But a recently announced breakthrough seems to go too far.

A former English teacher has devised a computer program to grade student essays. The program, called PEG — Project Essay Grade — developed by Duke University professor Ellis Page, performs as well as people in grading student writing.

At first glance, this sounds good and reasonable. This will allow teachers to assign more essays, allowing students to improve their writing. It will also free teachers from the unenviable task of wading through mountains of essays.

But looking deeper, this seems like a completely bad idea. No matter how good the computer program, it’s always going to look at essays in an impersonal, mathematical mode. 

A computer program can grade spelling and to a certain extent, it can determine if grammar is properly used (or should that be “is used properly?”). It may even be able to look for and count key words to make sure the student is following the assignment. For example, if the assignment was to write an essay about dinosaurs, the computer may grade higher if the student frequently uses the key words, “Mesozoic,” “walnut-sized brain” and “terrible lizard.”

If students knew a computer was grading their essays, they could get passing grades even if they wrote illogically — as long as they spelled correctly, used proper grammar and used plenty of the key words. Like this:

“The dinosaurs became extinct a long time ago. My mother said to clean up the Mesozoic in my room. My teacher is a terrible lizard with a walnut-sized brain.”

I’m not saying computers should be eliminated from the writing process. Computerized spelling checkers and grammar checkers have helped my writing to be righter and gooder and have helped me eliminate many, many, many unnecessary words.

But sometimes my spelling checker wants to change properly spelled words. For example, when I wrote the name “Colin Powell,” my spell-checker didn’t know either name and suggested words that were close — “Colon Bowel.” Another time, when I wrote the word “childcare,” the computer mischievously suggested the word I really wanted was “kidnaper,” a word that isn’t even close in spelling and completely opposite in meaning. 

This was a bit frightening. If you can make a computer program to check essays, who’s to say you couldn’t make one to baby-sit the kids? But instead of babysitting, this program would probably hide the kids and automatically print out letter-quality ransom notes.

Having a computer point out your grammar errors is a bit frustrating and humbling. I used to think it was judging me and calling me stupid. Its criticism seemed harsher than any I ever received from even my most stickling editor when I was reporter.

But I got over it. I realized the computer checked my grammar with no emotion. It didn’t care about my feelings and didn’t do things for petty or arbitrary reasons. I cannot say the same for some of those real-life editors I had, such as the one whose primary reason for not giving me a larger pay raise was that I allegedly used too many commas.

I was tempted to write this editor a note that said: “I, have, had, enough, of, your, petty, criticism.”

You can’t do that sort of thing with a computer. If you send that note to a grammar checker, it won’t get the insult, but will ask you: “Hey, genius, is this a run-on sentence or what?”

A computer can be a dispassionate tutor offering spelling and grammar suggestions. But a computerized essay-checker has no soul. It cannot tell a student, “This is a really good essay. I like the way you formed and expressed your idea in a very original way.”

And even if it could offer such encouragement, would you really care what a computer thought? 

It’s likely that such a computer program would impose a standardization on all writing. Unique approaches would be stifled. We would all be taught to write the same stuffy way, as if we studied the same guide to business-letter writing or we all became opinion page columnists.

The only way to maintain originality would be to avoid writing computer-checked essays. And how could you do that without failing school?

Well, if someone can devise a computer program for teachers to grade student essays, then it’s almost a certainty that someone can devise a program for students to write them.

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