Hey, Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone!

The Chronicle of Higher Education

reports that linguists have invented a computer program that understands student writing. That would be a welcome advance in civilization, had it not also opened a window on the corrupt bargain between students and professors when it comes to teaching basic literary skills in the first place.

The Intelligent Essay Assessor (an Orwellian misnomer, of course) is based on a form of artificial intelligence called LSA–latent semantic analysis, explained in detail on this website. In brief–bear with me here–the program first compares reference materials to sample essays which have been graded by a professor, then compares the sample essays to student essays. The students don’t have to use particular keywords for the program to figure out what they’re talking about; it has a wide vocabulary. As for grading, “[I]f an essay appears to convey the same knowledge as verifiably good essays, the computer gives it a good score. If a student’s work looks similar to a poor essay, it gets a low score.”

Here’s what the IEA catches: Students who never read the assignment in the first place; plagiarists; people who try to beat the program by packing the essay with relevant keywords but not stringing them together in any meaningful way. Here’s what it doesn’t catch: “clever turns of phrase or creative approaches to an assignment.” But isn’t that the essence of higher education? Wrong! This month’s issue of American Demographics reports that more students than ever don’t give a fig about clever turns of phrase or creative approaches to assignments. They want big financial aid packages and the assurance of a good job after graduation. Once they get into the school of their choice, they study less than they ever have. “College students want to reap what they consider to be the maximum benefits – money and social status – for the minimum amount of work,” says the study’s author.

This suits professors just fine. They’ve told the Chronicle that they’re grateful to have their workload lightened by a computer. And why shouldn’t they be? They’re not graded on how well they teach; they’re graded by the number of articles they publish in research journals. Deepening the intellectual understanding of the next generation, or just teaching it to compose a decent sentence, seems to be the last thing on anyone’s mind. The University of Colorado and New Mexico State University, quick to grasp that their role is to funnel students into professional schools and high-income jobs, not to burden them with fine points of style, have already adopted the Intelligent Essay Assessor; so has the Graduate Management Admission Test. It won’t be long before the rest of the country does too. So, kids, it’s a deal: We won’t teach you how to write, and you won’t object that you can’t.

Judith Shulevitz