It’s snowing and spitting ice outside, and like all my colleagues, I’m looking at the possibility of a day off tomorrow. It’s no secret that teachers feel the same sense of giddy enthusiasm when that hyper-chilled form of precipitation hits the turf outside, but my take on a snow day is a probably one that falls in the minority.
I don’t want tomorrow off, per se.
I want a day out of class so I can work.
You see, I’m an English teacher. My students write papers. Quite a few of them are brilliant, many of them are decent, yet others are just god-awful, and all of them combined take for-for-for-ever to get through.
Three years ago, I wrote this piece when I first started Gyrewide…back when I thought I was going to write a serious blog and change the course of human history (as he speaks in his deepest Marlon Brando voice). When I reread it tonight, I have to admit, I winced. I was getting divorced at the time, living in a crappy ranch house on a crumbling foundation, going through an A-level emotional/nervous breakdown, and getting myself fired from golf coaching gig as a result (I managed to hang onto my real job because, thankfully, my track-record in the classroom counted for something). It was a bad time, and the anger in the column seems to ooze out of the thing. I actually thought about re-writing it, but I opted to leave it as it is. The classes I teach have changed, and I’m a lot less angry (trust me…as soon as I get some friends, I’ll tell you to ask them). The numbers aren’t precisely the same either, but they’re also not that far off. I’m still swamped, and now (thanks to reform-pushed classroom micro-management) I have to find even more time to get these things done outside of class.
I’ve made my peace…really.
Lately, however, articles such as this one from The New York Times raise a new wrinkle: computer-graded essays. Like almost every other English teacher out there, I wanted to rebut the celebratory nature of the article, but Les Perelman makes my case much more pointedly, and he backs up his claims with “tons” of data (one of my students’ favorite words…I had to give it try).
Right now, of course, dissing automated readers is easy because the technology is limited. But what happens when we make artificial intelligence that’s smart enough to serve as a Lt. Commander on the USS Enterprise-D? Or smart enough to nuke the Twelve Colonies of Kobol and send humanity fleeing across space? Please don’t ask me for a C-3PO allusion to those “six million forms of communication.”
My answer to those questions was also better addressed by another writer. Benjamin Winterhalter’s brilliant article in Salon hits it spot-on, especially at his close:
The deepest reason to get rid of automated essay grading is not that the statistical correlations aren’t good enough yet (this is fixable) or that one can cleverly trick the computer (this is true, but not the root issue). The reason to get rid of automated essay grading is that the whole point of doing something like writing an essay is to learn to engage on a level that machines cannot participate in or really appreciate. It’s to use the other part of your mind in an effort to communicate with other people. That, the profound and joyous sense of recognition that comes from communication, is the thing worth teaching, and it is the thing worth learning. We should put aside the pretensions of objectivity and practicality and get back to the part that really matters.
Much of the debate around automated grading focuses on the scoring of standardized essay tests, which is a problem unto itself even when the graders are of the flesh-and-blood variety.
Both Winterhalter and the National Council of Teachers of English ask, “If not computers grading essays, then what?” My answer to that remains the same, expensive one it always has been: hire more teachers (more well-trained, very-educated teachers), give them fewer students, and give them time during the work day to…you know…work.
Yeah, I know…it’ll never happen.
Like Winterhalter, I’m too emotionally connected to writing to hand it over to a machine. Writing is art, and even when it’s roughly hewn by young, unsophisticated kids desperately trying to find their voice and figure out what kind of people they are, it’s still superbly magical.
I’m about to dig into a large pile of that magic tonight. I’ll finish as much as I can before I peter out; however, I won’t come close to getting all of it graded. But, man…if it snowed enough to call off tomorrow, I’d put a HUGE dent in that pile of papers.
(At this point, the author peers up into the night sky and whispers: “Snow, *****er-****er! Snow.”)