Where Do I Get One of These Fancy Essay Grading Bots?
According to The New York Times, I might be able to reclaim my weekends soon: New Test for Computers: Grading Essays at College Level.
My initial gut reaction? Bring. It. On.
I hate grading essays. I hate just almost every single thing about it. The liberal arts college where I teach is small and teaching focused, so we don’t get the two courses per term that research profs get; we teach four classes every term. My load usually looks exactly as it does right now: two literature classes, a freshman writing class, and a team-taught auditorium humanities course with 60 students. This minute, as I sit here, I am in possession of approximately 75 papers, ranging in length from 950 to 2000 words, that need grading. And finals are in two weeks. It’s the absolute WORST, you guys.
The article linked above cites arguments from skeptics, mostly claiming that a computer program cannot actually “read” an essay. As a committed posthumanist waiting impatiently for my cyborg body, I have less of a problem with the concept than those detractors. It would not surprise me so very much to find that a computer program could determine whether a standard academic essay were well organized and supported. But that’s only half the battle of essay marking. The computer would not know, for example, if an argument that seemed out of place in an essay derived from a conversation we had in class. The computer would not have worked with a struggling student on draft after draft and thus recognize improvements and effort that indicate so much more than the final product alone. Basically, my problem isn’t that the computer isn’t a person, but that the computer wouldn’t be me. If I don’t read my students’ essays, I have very little idea what they understand or think about the material we’re studying, and thus little idea how to adjust my instruction. Moreover, the ones who refuse to speak in class–whose names I often have trouble learning until I get a feel for their writing–would remain ciphers.
Ultimately, when the brief (but delicious) fantasy induced by the article faded, I had to conclude that a program like this might be useful for students trying to write tighter academic essays in general but was unlikely to be useful to me as a grader, especially in literature classes where arguments are based on interpretation rather than statements of fact. I can see myself using a program like this to tutor students in basic essay construction but, alas, I don’t think it’s going to take any grading off my hands anytime soon.