By Jeffrey Jurgens
“In the circle around Socrates, there were men like Alcibiades and Critias—God knows, by no means the worst among his so-called pupils—and they had turned out to be a very real threat to the polis, and this not by being paralyzed by the electric ray but, on the contrary, by having been aroused by the gadfly. What they had been aroused to was license and cynicism.”
--Hannah Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations”
Hannah Arendt regards Socrates as an apt model for the kind of thinking she admired and championed. He was, in her words, “a citizen among citizens,” a man who thought “without becoming a philosopher.” For rather than imparting a substantive notion of virtue or truth, he sought to “unfreeze” sedimented concepts like justice, courage, and happiness so that his interlocutors might examine them anew.
Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Over at SCOTUSblog, Burt Neuborne writes that “American democracy is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Oligarchs, Inc.” The good news, Neuborne reminds, is that “this too shall pass.” After a fluid and trenchant review of the case and the recent decision declaring limits on aggregate giving to political campaigns to be unconstitutional, Neuborne writes: “Perhaps most importantly, McCutcheon illustrates two competing visions of the First Amendment in action. Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion turning American democracy over to the tender mercies of the very rich insists that whether aggregate contribution limits are good or bad for American democracy is not the Supreme Court’s problem. He tears seven words out of the forty-five words that constitute Madison’s First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law abridging . . . speech”; ignores the crucial limiting phrase “the freedom of,” and reads the artificially isolated text fragment as an iron deregulatory command that disables government from regulating campaign financing, even when deregulation results in an appalling vision of government of the oligarchs, by the oligarchs, and for the oligarchs that would make Madison (and Lincoln) weep. Justice Breyer’s dissent, seeking to retain some limit on the power of the very rich to exercise undue influence over American democracy, views the First Amendment, not as a simplistic deregulatory command, but as an aspirational ideal seeking to advance the Founders’ effort to establish a government of the people, by the people, and for the people for the first time in human history. For Justice Breyer, therefore, the question of what kind of democracy the Supreme Court’s decision will produce is at the center of the First Amendment analysis. For Chief Justice Roberts, it is completely beside the point. I wonder which approach Madison would have chosen. As a nation, we’ve weathered bad constitutional law before. Once upon a time, the Supreme Court protected slavery. Once upon a time the Supreme Court blocked minimum-wage and maximum-hour legislation. Once upon a time, the Supreme Court endorsed racial segregation, denied equality to women, and jailed people for their thoughts and associations. This, too, shall pass. The real tragedy would be for people to give up on taking our democracy back from the oligarchs. Fixing the loopholes in disclosure laws, and public financing of elections are now more important than ever. Moreover, the legal walls of the airless room are paper-thin. Money isn’t speech at obscenely high levels. Protecting political equality is a compelling interest justifying limits on uncontrolled spending by the very rich. And preventing corruption means far more than stopping quid pro quo bribery. It means the preservation of a democracy where the governed can expect their representatives to decide issues independently, free from economic serfdom to their paymasters. The road to 2016 starts here. The stakes are the preservation of democracy itself.” It is important to remember that the issue is not really partisan, but that both parties are corrupted by the influx of huge amounts of money. Democracy is in danger not because one party will by the election, but because the oligarchs on both sides are crowding out grassroots participation. This is an essay you should read in full. For a plain English review of the decision, read this from SCOTUSblog. And for a Brief History of Campaign Finance, check out this from the Arendt Center Archives.
Zephyr Teachout, the most original and important thinker about the constitutional response to political corruption, has an op-ed in the Washington Post: “We should take this McCutcheon moment to build a better democracy. The plans are there. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) has proposed something that would do more than fix flaws. H.R. 20, which he introduced in February, is designed around a belief that federal political campaigns should be directly funded by millions of passionate, but not wealthy, supporters. A proposal in New York would do a similar thing at the state level.” Teachout spoke at the Arendt Center two years ago after the Citizens United case. Afterwards, Roger Berkowitz wrote: “It is important to see that Teachout is really pointing out a shift between two alternate political theories. First, she argues that for the founders and for the United States up until the mid-20th century, the foundational value that legitimates our democracy is the confidence that our political system is free from corruption. Laws that restrict lobbying or penalize bribery are uncontroversial and constitutional, because they recognize core—if not the core—constitutional values. Second, Teachout sees that increasingly free speech has replaced anti-corruption as the foundational constitutional value in the United States. Beginning in the 20th century and culminating in the Court's decision in Citizens United, the Court gradually accepted the argument that the only way to guarantee a legitimate democracy is to give unlimited protection to the marketplace of idea. Put simply, truth is nothing else but the product of free debate and any limits on debate, especially political debate, will delegitimize our politics.” Read the entirety of his commentary here. Watch a recording of Teachout’s speech here.
A new exhibition opened two weeks ago at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin that examines the changing ways in which states police and govern their subjects through forensics, and how certain aesthetic-political practices have also been used to challenge or expose states. Curated by Anselm Franke and Eyal Weizman, Forensis “raises fundamental questions about the conditions under which spatial and material evidence is recorded and presented, and tests the potential of new types of evidence to expand our juridical imagination, open up forums for political dispute and practice, and articulate new claims for justice.” Harry Burke and Lucy Chien review the exhibition on Rhizome: “The exhibition argues that forensics is a political practice primarily at the point of interpretation. Yet if the exhibition is its own kind of forensic practice, then it is the point of the viewer's engagement where the exhibition becomes significant. The underlying argument in Forensis is that the object of forensics should be as much the looker and the act of looking as the looked-upon.” You may want to read more and then we suggest Mengele’s Skull: The Advent of a Forensic Aesthetics.
In an interview, Leslie Jamison, author of the very recently published The Empathy Exams, offers up a counterintuitive defense of empathy: “I’m interested in everything that might be flawed or messy about empathy — how imagining other lives can constitute a kind of tyranny, or artificially absolve our sense of guilt or responsibility; how feeling empathy can make us feel we’ve done something good when we actually haven’t. Zizek talks about how 'feeling good' has become a kind of commodity we purchase for ourselves when we buy socially responsible products; there’s some version of this inoculation logic — or danger — that’s possible with empathy as well: we start to like the feeling of feeling bad for others; it can make us feel good about ourselves. So there’s a lot of danger attached to empathy: it might be self-serving or self-absorbed; it might lead our moral reasoning astray, or supplant moral reasoning entirely. But do I want to defend it, despite acknowledging this mess? More like: I want to defend it by acknowledging this mess. Saying: Yes. Of course. But yet. Anyway.”
In a review of Romanian writer Herta Muller's recently translated collection Christina and Her Double, Costica Bradatan points to what changing language can do, what it can't do, and how those who attempt to manipulate it may also underestimate its power: “Behind all these efforts was the belief that language can change the real world. If religious terms are removed from language, people will stop having religious feelings; if the vocabulary of death is properly engineered, people will stop being afraid of dying. We may smile today, but in the long run such polices did produce a change, if not the intended one. The change was not in people’s attitudes toward death or the afterworld, but in their ability to make sense of what was going on. Since language plays such an important part in the construction of the self, when the state subjects you to constant acts of linguistic aggression, whether you realize it or not, your sense of who you are and of your place in the world are seriously affected. Your language is not just something you use, but an essential part of what you are. For this reason any political disruption of the way language is normally used can in the long run cripple you mentally, socially, and existentially. When you are unable to think clearly you cannot act coherently. Such an outcome is precisely what a totalitarian system wants: a population perpetually caught in a state of civic paralysis.”
Charles Samuleson, author of "The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone," has this paean to the humanities in the Wall Street Journal: “I once had a student, a factory worker, who read all of Schopenhauer just to find a few lines that I quoted in class. An ex-con wrote a searing essay for me about the injustice of mandatory minimum sentencing, arguing that it fails miserably to live up to either the retributive or utilitarian standards that he had studied in Introduction to Ethics. I watched a preschool music teacher light up at Plato's "Republic," a recovering alcoholic become obsessed by Stoicism, and a wayward vet fall in love with logic (he's now finishing law school at Berkeley). A Sudanese refugee asked me, trembling, if we could study arguments concerning religious freedom. Never more has John Locke —or, for that matter, the liberal arts—seemed so vital to me.”
Arthur C. Brooks makes the case that charitable giving makes us happier and even more successful: “In 2003, while working on a book about charitable giving, I stumbled across a strange pattern in my data. Paradoxically, I was finding that donors ended up with more income after making their gifts. This was more than correlation; I found solid evidence that giving stimulated prosperity…. Why? Charitable giving improves what psychologists call “self-efficacy,” one’s belief that one is capable of handling a situation and bringing about a desired outcome. When people give their time or money to a cause they believe in, they become problem solvers. Problem solvers are happier than bystanders and victims of circumstance.” Do yourself a favor, then, and become a member of the Arendt Center.
What Heidegger's Denktagebuch reveals about his thinking during the Nazi regime.
April 8, 2014
Goethe Institut, NYC
Learn more here.
"My Name is Ruth."
An Evening with Bard Big Read and Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping
Excerpts will be read by Neil Gaiman, Nicole Quinn, & Mary Caponegro
April 23, 2014
Richard B. Fisher Center, Bard College
Learn more here.
This week on the blog, our Quote of the Week comes from Martin Wager, who views Arendt's idea of world alienation through the lens of modern day travel. Josh Kopin looks at Stanford Literary Lab's idea of using computers and data as a tool for literary criticism. In the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz ponders the slippery slope of using the First Amendment as the basis for campaign finance reform.
SPECTRA Special Issue
Call for Submissions
Due: March 15, 2014
SPECTRA: Social, Political, Ethical, & Cultural Theory Archives.
SPECTRA invites submissions by STUDENTS for a special issue on “Hannah Arendt: Fifty Years after Eichmann in Jerusalem.”
Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem stirred controversy when originally published in 1963. The recent biographical film Hannah Arendt (2013) attempts to portray her efforts to chronicle the trial of Nazi administrator Adolf Eichmann, and to theorize the legal prosecution of crimes never before tried in a court of law. Now, fifty years after the trial in Jerusalem and the publication of Arendt’s analysis we aim to further the conversation in a special issue. Potential topics may include, but are by no means limited to the following:
- Have contemporary societies come to terms with the concerns Arendt originally raised?
- What challenges, if anything, does Arendt’s analysis of “the banality of evil” pose for discourse on present-day global issues?
- What do the peripheral production details of the film (e.g. timing, funding, cast, distribution, etc.) tell us about the desires of those involved in its development?
- Does the film faithfully portray the role of personal experiences and motivations in guiding the scholar’s work?
- How does Arendt’s work engage with contemporary feminist scholarship and activism?
- What can we make of both the omissions and emphases in the film?
We invite submissions on the topic and, in particular, encourage the following:
- Essays-in-brief: critical essays and reflections at approximately 2,000 — 2,500 words,
- Film reviews and commentaries: responses to specific aspects of the film and/or the overall film (2,000 — 2,500 words)
- Critical provocations: poetry, art, multimedia, and/or unconventional text projects intended to provoke discourse on the theme (we recommend contacting the issue editor to discuss these ideas in advance of submitting your work)
- Full-length research essays (4,000 – 5,000 words) are also welcome.
Submissions undergo a double-anonymous review process, and all work must include appropriate citations formatted according to the Chicago Manual of Style 16th Edition.
Please review the complete submission guidelines available at: http://spectrajournal.org/submission-guidelines/
After months in which university after university signed on to the bandwagon for Massive Open Online Courses called MOOCs, the battle over the future of education has finally begun. This week Duke University pulled out of EdX, the Harvard/MIT led consortium of Massive Open Online Courses called MOOC’s.
The reason: Its faculty rebelled. According to The New York Times,
While [Duke provost Peter] Lange saw the consortium as expanding the courses available to Duke students, some faculty members worried that the long-term effect might be for the university to offer fewer courses — and hire fewer professors. Others said there had been inadequate consultation with the faculty.
The Times also reports that faculty at Amherst College, my alma mater and former employer, voted against joining EdX. Again, the faculty saw danger. My former colleagues worried that the introduction of online courses would detrimentally impact the quality and spirit of education and the small liberal arts college. They also, as our friends over at ViaMeadia report, worried that MOOCs would “take student tuition dollars away from so-called middle-tier and lower-tier” schools, pushing their colleagues at these institutions out of their jobs.
And that brings us to ground zero of the battle between the faculty and the MOOCs: San Jose State University. San Jose State has jumped out as a leader in the use of blended online and offline courses. Mohammad H. Qayoumi, the university's president, has defended his embrace of online curricula on both educational and financial grounds. He points to one course, "Circuits & Electronics," offered by EdX. In a pilot program, students in that course did better than students in similar real-world courses taught by San Jose State professors. Where nearly 40% of San Jose students taking their traditional course received a C or lower, only 9% of students taking the EdX course did. For Qayoumi and others, such studies offer compelling grounds for integrating MOOCs into the curriculum. The buzzword is “blended courses,” in which the MOOCs are used in conjunction with faculty tutors. In this “flipped classroom,” the old model in which students listen to lectures in lecture halls and then do assignments at home, is replaced by online lectures supplemented by discussions and exercises done in class with professors. As I have written, such a model can be pedagogically powerful, if done right.
But as attractive as MOOCs may be, they carry with them real dangers. And these dangers emerge front and center in the hard-hitting Open Letter that the philosophy department at San Jose State University has published addressed to Michael Sandel. Sandel is the Harvard Professor famous for his popular and excellent course “Justice,” that has been wowing and provoking Harvard undergraduates for decades. Sandel not only teaches his course, he has branded it. He sells videos of the course; he published a book called Justice based on the course, and, most recently, created an online video version of the course for EdX. San Jose State recently became one of the first public universities in the country to sign a contract paying for the use of EdX courses. This is what led to the letter from the philosophers.
The letter begins by laying out the clear issue. The San Jose Philosophy department has professors who can teach courses in justice and ethics of the kind Sandel teaches. From their point of view, “There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves, nor do we have a shortage of faculty capable of teaching our equivalent course.” In short, while some students may prefer a course with a famous Harvard professor, the faculty at San Jose State believe that they are qualified to teach about Justice.
Given their qualifications, the philosophy professors conclude that the real reason for the contract with EdX is not increased educational value, but simply cost. As they write: "We believe that long-term financial considerations motivate the call for massively open online courses (MOOCs) at public universities such as ours.
In short, the faculty sees the writing on the wall. Whatever boilerplate rhetoric about blended courses and educational benefit may be fashionable and necessary, the real issue is simple. Public universities (and many private ones as well) will not keep paying the salaries of professors when those professors are not needed.
While for now professors are kept on to teach courses in a blended classroom, there will soon be need for many fewer professors. As students take Professor Sandel’s class at universities around the country, they will eventually work with teaching assistants—just as students do at Harvard, where Professor Sandel has pitifully little interaction with his hundreds of students in every class. These teaching assistants make little money, significantly less than a tenured or even a non-tenured professor. It is only a matter of time before many university classes are taught virtually by superstar professors assisted by armies of low-paid onsite assistants. State universities will then be able to educate significantly more students at a fraction of the current cost. For many students this will be a great boon—a certified and possibly quality education at a cheap price. For most California voters, this is a good deal. But it is precisely what the faculty at San Jose State fear. As they write:
We believe the purchasing of online and blended courses is not driven by concerns about pedagogy, but by an effort to restructure the U.S. university system in general, and our own California State University system in particular. If the concern were pedagogically motivated, we would expect faculty to be consulted and to monitor quality control. On the other hand, when change is financially driven and involves a compromise of quality it is done quickly, without consulting faculty or curriculum committees, and behind closed doors. This is essentially what happened with SJSU's contract with edX. At a press conference (April 10, 2013 at SJSU) announcing the signing of the contract with edX, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom acknowledged as much: "The old education financing model, frankly, is no longer sustainable." This is the crux of the problem. It is time to stop masking the real issue of MOOCs and blended courses behind empty rhetoric about a new generation and a new world. The purchasing of MOOCs and blended courses from outside vendors is the first step toward restructuring the CSU.
The San Jose State philosophy professors are undoubtedly correct. We are facing a systematic transformation in higher education in this country and also in secondary education as well. Just as the Internet has revolutionized journalism and just as it is now shaking the foundations of medicine and law, the Internet will not leave education alone. Change seems nigh. Part of this change is being driven by cost. Some of it is also being driven by the failures and perceived failures of our current system. The question for those of us in the world of higher education is whether we can respond intelligently to save the good and change out the bad. It is time that faculties around the country focus on this question and for that we should all be thankful to the philosophy professors at San Jose State.
The Open Letter offers three main points to argue that it is bad pedagogy to replace them with the blended course model of MOOCs and teaching assistants.
First, they argue that good teaching requires professors engaged in research. When professors are engaged in active research programs, they are interested in and motivated by their fields. Students can perceive if a professor is bored with a class and students will always learn more and be driven to study and excel by professors who feel that their work matters. Some may wonder what the use of research is that is read by only a few colleagues around the world, but one answer is that such research is necessary to keep professors fresh and sharp. We all know the sad fate of professors who have disengaged from research.
Second, the philosophy professors accept the argument of many including myself that large lectures are not the best way to teach. They teach by the Socratic method, interacting with students. Such classes, they write, are much better than having students watch Professor Sandel engage Socratically with faculty at Harvard. Of course, the MOOC model would still allow for Socratic and personal engagement, just by much lower paid purveyors of the craft. The unanswered question is whether low-paid assistants can be trained to teach well. The answer may well be yes.
Third, the philosophy faculty worry about the exact same moral justice course being taught across the country. We can already see the disciplinary barricades being drawn. It may be one thing to teach Math to the whole country from one or two MOOCs, but philosophy needs multiple perspectives. But how many? The philosophy professors suggest that their highly diverse and often lower-middle-class students have different experiences and references than do Professor Sandel’s Harvard students. They can, in the classroom, better connect with these students than Professor Sandel via online lectures.
The points the San Jose State philosophy professors raise are important. In many ways, however, their letter misses the point. Our educational system is now structured on a few questionable premises. First, that everyone who attends college wants a liberal arts education. That is simply not true. Many students simply want a credential to get a job. If these students can be taught well and more cheaply, we should help them. There is a question of whether we need to offer everyone the same kind of highly personalized and expensive education. While such arguments will be lambasted as elitist, it is nevertheless true that not everyone wants or needs to read Kant closely. We should seek to protect the ability of those who do—no matter their economic class—and also allow those who don’t a more efficient path through school.
A second questionable premise is that specialization is necessary to be a good teacher. This also is false. Too much specialization removes one from the world of common sense. As I have argued before, we need professors who are educated more generally. It is important to learn about Shakespeare and Aristotle, but you don’t need to be a specialist in Shakespeare or Aristotle to teach them well and thoughtfully to undergraduates. This is not an argument against the Ph.D. It is important to study and learn an intellectual tradition if you are going to teach. But it is an argument against the professionalization of the Ph.D. and of graduate education in general. It is also an argument against the dominance of undergraduate curriculum by professionalized scholars.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, is the premise that everyone needs to go to college. If we put a fraction of the resources we currently spend on remedial education for college students back into public high schools in this country, we could begin the process of transforming high school into a serious and meaningful activity. For one thing, we could begin employing Ph.D.s as high school teachers as are many of the emerging early colleges opening around the country.
I am sympathetic to the philosophy professors at San Jose State. I too teach a course on Justice called “The Foundation of Law: The Quest for Justice.” It is a course quite similar and yet meaningfully different from Michael Sandel’s course on Justice. I believe it is better, no offense meant. And I would be upset if I were told next year that instead of teaching my course I would be in effect a glorified TA for Professor Sandel. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but I know it might.
The only response for those whose jobs are being replaced by computers or the Internet is to go out and figure out how to do it better. That is what happened to journalists who were fired in droves. Many quit voluntarily and began developing new models of journalism, including blogs that have enriched our public discourse and largely rejuvenated public journalism in this country. Blogs, of course, are not perfect, and there is the question of how to make a living writing one. But enterprising bloggers like Andrew Sullivan and Walter Russell Mead are figuring that out. So too are professors like Michael Sandel and Andrew Ng.
We need educators to become experimental these days, to create small schools and intensive curricula within larger institutions that make the most of the personal interaction that is the core of true pedagogy. If that happens, and if teachers offer meaningful education for which students or our taxpayers will pay, then our jobs will be safe. And our students will be better for it. For this reason, we should welcome the technology as a push to make ourselves better teachers.
The Open Letter to Michael Sandel deserves a response. I hope Professor Sandel offers one. Until then, I recommend that this beautiful Spring weekend you read the letter from the San Jose State Philosophy Department. It is your weekend read.
I was at dinner with a colleague this week—midterm week. Predictably, talk turned to the scourge of all professors: grading essays. There are few tasks in the life of a college professor less fulfilling than grading student essays. Every once in a while a really good essay jolts me to consciousness. I am elated by such encounters. To be honest, however, reading essays is for the most part stultifying. This is not the fault of the students, many of whom are brilliant and exuberant writers. I find it trying to wade through 25 essays discussing the same book, offering varying opinions and theories, while keeping my attention and interest. How many different ways can one ask for a thesis, talk about the importance of transition sentences, and correct grammar? For some time it is fun, in a way. One learns new things and is captivated by comparing how bright young minds see things. But after years, grading the essay becomes just part of the worst part of a great job.
So how might my colleagues and I react to news that EdX—the influential Harvard-MIT led consortium offering online courses—has developed software that will grade college student essays? I imagine it is sort of like how people felt when the dishwasher was invented. You mean we can cook and feast and don’t have to scrub pots and wash dishes? It promises to allow us to focus on teaching well without having to do that part of our job that we truly dread.
The appeal of computer grading is obvious and broad. Not only will many professors and teachers be freed from unwanted tedium, but also it may help our students. One advantage of computer grading is that it is nearly instantaneous. Students can hand in their work and get a grade and feedback seconds later. Too often essays are handed back days or even weeks after they are submitted. By then the students have lost interest in their paper and forgotten the inspiration that breathed life into their writing. To receive immediate feedback will allow students to see what they did wrong and how they could improve while the generative impulse underlying the paper is still fresh. Computer grading might encourage students to turn in numerous drafts of a paper; it may very well help teach students to write better, something that professorial comments delivered after a week rarely accomplish.
Another putative advantage of computer grading is its objectivity and consistency. Every professor knows that it matters when we read essays and in what order. Some essays find us awake and attentive. Others meet my eyes as they struggle to remain open. As much as I try to ignore the names on the top of the page, I can’t deny that my reading and grading is personalized to the students. I teach at a small liberal arts college where I know the students. If I read a particularly difficult sentence by a student I have come to trust, I often make a second effort. My personal attention has advantages but it is of course discriminatory. The computer will not do that, which may be seen by some as more fair. What is more, the computer doesn’t get tired or need caffeine.
Perhaps the most important advantage for administrators considering these programs is the cost savings. If computers relieve professors from the burden of grading, that means professors can teach more. It may also mean that fewer TA’s are necessary in large lecture courses, thus saving money for strapped universities. There may even be a further side benefit to these programs. If universities need fewer TA’s to grade papers, they may admit fewer graduate students to their programs, thus going some way towards alleviating the extraordinary and irresponsible over-production of young professors that is swelling the ranks of unemployable Ph.D.s.
There are, of course, real worries about computer grading of essays. My concern is not that the computers will make mistakes (so do I); or that we lack studies that show that computers can grade as well as human professors—for I doubt professors are on the whole excellent graders. The real issue is elsewhere.
According to the group “Professionals Against Machine Scoring of Student Essays in High-Stakes Assessment,” the problem with computer grading of essays is simple: Machines cannot read. Here is what the group says in a statement:
Let’s face the realities of automatic essay scoring. Computers cannot ‘read.’ They cannot measure the essentials of effective written communication: accuracy, reasoning, adequacy of evidence, good sense, ethical stance, convincing argument, meaningful organization, clarity, and veracity, among others.
What needs to be taken seriously is not that computers can’t grade as well as humans. In many ways they grade better. More consistently. More honestly. With less grade inflation. And more quickly. But computer grading will be different than human grading. It will be less nuanced and aspire to clearly defined criteria. Are sentences grammatical? Is there a clear statement of the thesis? Are there examples given? Is there a transition between sentences? All of these are important parts of good writing and the computer can be trained to look for these characteristics in an essay. What this means, however, is that computers will demand the kind of clear, precise, and logical writing that computers can understand and that many professors and administrators demand from students. What this also means, however, is that writing will become more mechanical.
There is much to be learned here from an analogy with the rise of computer chess. The great grandmaster Gary Kasparov—who famously lost to Deep Blue— has perceptively argued that machines have changed the ways Chess is played and redefined what a good chess move and a well-played chess game looks like. As I have written before:
The heavy use of computer analysis has pushed the game itself in new directions. The machine doesn’t care about style or patterns or hundreds of years of established theory. It counts up the values of the chess pieces, analyzes a few billion moves, and counts them up again. (A computer translates each piece and each positional factor into a value in order to reduce the game to numbers it can crunch.) It is entirely free of prejudice and doctrine and this has contributed to the development of players who are almost as free of dogma as the machines with which they train. Increasingly, a move isn’t good or bad because it looks that way or because it hasn’t been done that way before. It’s simply good if it works and bad if it doesn’t. Although we still require a strong measure of intuition and logic to play well, humans today are starting to play more like computers. One way to put this is that as we rely on computers and begin to value what computers value and think like computers think, our world becomes more rational, more efficient, and more powerful, but also less beautiful, less unique, and less exotic.
Much the same might be expected from the increasing use of computers to grade (and eventually to write) essays. Students will learn to write in ways expected from computers, just as they today try to learn to write in ways desired by their professors. The difference is that different professors demand and respond to varying styles. Computers will consistently and logically drive writing towards a more mechanical and logical style. Writing, like Chess playing, will likely become more rational, more efficient, and more effective, but also less beautiful, less unique, and less eccentric. In other words, writing will become less human.
It turns out that many secondary school districts already use computers to grade essays. But according to John Markoff in The New York Times, the EdX software promises to bring the technology into college classrooms as well as online courses.
It is quite possible that in the near future, my colleagues and I will no longer have to complain about grading essays. But that is unlikely at Bard. More likely is that such software will be used in large university lecture courses. In such courses with hundreds of students, professors already shorten questions or replace essays with multiple-choice tests. Or they use armies of underpaid graduate students to grade these essays. It is quite likely that software will actually augment the educational value of writing assignments at college in these large lecture halls.
In seminars, however, and in classes at small liberal arts colleges like Bard where I teach, such software will not likely free my colleagues and me from reading essays. The essays I assign are not simple responses to questions in which there are clear criteria for grading. I look for elegance, brevity, insight, and the human spark (please no comments on my writing). Whether or not I am good at evaluating writing or at teaching writing, that is my aspiration. I seek to encourage writing that is thoughtful rather than writing that is simply accurate. When I have time to make meaningful comments on papers, they concern structure, elegance, and depth. It is not only a way to grade an essay, but also a way to connect with my students and help them to see what it means to write and think well.
And yet, I can easily imagine making use of such a computer-grading program. I rarely have time to grade essays as well or as quickly as I would like. I would love to have my students submit drafts of their essays to the EdX computer program.
If they could repeatedly submit their essays and receive such feedback and use the computer to catch not only grammatical errors but also poor sentences, redundancies, repetitions, and whatever other mistakes the computer can be trained to recognize, that would allow them to respond and rework their essays many times before I see them. Used well, I hope, such grading programs might really augment my capacities as a professor and their experiences as students.
I have real fears that grading technology will rarely be used well. Rather, it will too-often replace human grading altogether and in large lectures, high schools and standardized tests will impose a new and inhuman standard on the way we write and thus the way we think. We should greet such new technologies enthusiastically and skeptically. But first, we should try to understand them. Towards that end, it is well worth reading John Markoff’s excellent account of the new EdX computer grading software in The New York Times. It is your weekend read.