Dissertation excerpt: the politics of writing education

From Chapter 5: The Age of Automation in The Android English Teacher: Writing Education in the Age of Automation

The unique challenge of teaching writing serves as an instructive test case for education writ large. Writing embodies a series of paradoxes. It is both a science and an art, a technical skillset and a creative outlet. It is essential to every academic field—the medium through which scholarship transpires—yet its teaching is treated as a mere service to the university. Writing is inherently social, a communicative act between author and audience, and also a process that unfolds for long stretches in solitude. Writing is heavily mediated by technology, but also a fundamentally human endeavor. Finally, writing—and especially its teaching—is simultaneously progressive and conservative, associated with both radical expressivist disciplines and a traditional, prescriptivist and civics-oriented education. One of the main challenges for liberal arts scholars and writing educators is successfully balancing these contradictions, which become heightened in the age of automation.

An automated writing education fails to strike a balance between these divisions as human teachers do, and instead aligns with one side in each. With automated writing education, writing is only a science, a skill, and a nonsocial act; it is a lifeless interaction between a writer and a preprogrammed algorithm, a rote reproduction of conventions to be marked right or wrong. At root, writing is not concerned with being “right” or “wrong,” but with effective communication. The automation of writing education reduces the nuance of negotiating effective communication between author and audience to a formulaic transmission of agreed-upon conventions between a word manager and a machine. What portends to happen to writing education in the age of automation is not simply a change in the way writing is taught, but a redefining of what writing is.

Whether automated writing education will come to be defined as politically progressive or conservative remains to be seen. As higher education itself undergoes a redefinition amid public health pandemics and technological progress, its political valence has grown more significant. Pew Research (Parker, 2019) has shown for years a growing partisan divide in views of higher education (Figure 6). Choice of academic majors and course content, as well as the value of a degree, have become politically charged in a way they never have before. Writing occupies a peculiar dual position within this politicization: conservatives believe writing is an essential component of education and decry college students’ alleged declining writing ability, yet simultaneously view the very departments that teach writing as part of a domineering leftwing culture on campuses.

As universities and colleges grapple with remote and virtual learning configurations in the coming years, I fear these growing political fault lines will become ammunition in those debates. Educational technology companies may enlist progressive political rhetoric to push their products, and arguments about virtual learning or automated educational technology may end up being more about political allegiances than the pedagogical effectiveness of the tools. In the event of educational technology companies—sensing an opportunity to get their foot in the door on campuses—invoking progressive political rhetoric to sell their products, we should think critically about the pedagogical repercussions of employing virtual, and potentially automated, educational products and services independent of such rhetoric as best we can.

Impressive-sounding claims of academic personalization and customization, combined with a progressive framing of pandemic-related social distancing and educational “access,” will continue to escalate as education turns more and more virtual. My great fear is that out of a commanding paranoia of being perceived “conservative,” liberal-minded educators will thoughtlessly accept, even advocate for, corporate-led education reforms that are nominally and symbolically progressive but deeply and structurally reactionary. Many of the arguments that preserve our autonomy as writing educators have the potential to sound conservative, and perhaps some of them even are conservative in a definitional sense. “Conservatism” has become so radioactive that people forget there are many things worth “conserving”; I believe the in-person teaching of writing is worth conserving, for instance.

We must not fear being perceived as conservative if we push back against that rhetoric. In fact, much of our jobs and livelihoods as educators revolve around conserving certain elements of the current educational model that would be irreparably disrupted by the unilateral welcoming of endless technocratic reform. If we are so afraid of being perceived as conservative that we align with nominally progressive educational reforms that beget reactionary consequences, that could give technology companies with empty progressive branding the power to significantly redefine for us what higher education looks like.

Covid-19 by the numbers

Rainbow gravity theory - Wikipedia

Historians of science debate it, but many consider the first example of “true science”—defined as the effort to numerically describe natural world phenomena—to be when the ancient Greeks calculated the ratios of musical tone intervals. The Greeks discovered that a string of the same thickness and tension as another but twice its length vibrated at a frequency an octave lower, meaning the ratio of an octave is 2:1. The ratio of a perfect fourth was calculated to be 4:3, a perfect fifth 3:2, and a tone (whole step) 8:9.

This process of quantifying intervalic harmony came to structure the Greeks’ entire way of thinking, extending beyond the strings of the lyre all the way to the heavens. They soon formed an early version of astronomy in which the planets were thought to exist in various degrees of harmony with one another. Sometimes consonant and other times dissonant, the planets orbited at differing harmonic intervals above or below another. Venus and Earth were a minor third apart.

This is hailed as scientific thinking—translating reality into numbers, identifying patterns, and inferring broad conclusions. But describing the distance between Earth and Venus as a minor third, we now know, is not science but poetry. While the ratios have proved correct and useful for musical tones, they are a useless framework for analyzing astronomical patterns. Numbers have that kind of seductive power. Their seeming objectivity projects a certainty that is both comforting and dangerous.

I’ve been thinking about the ancient Greeks as we continue to battle Covid-19. We are deep in the process of describing this novel virus using our own modern quantitative language. The pandemic has brought with it a dizzying array of numbers to decipher: total confirmed cases, running death toll, case fatality rate, R0 (the rate of infection), growth rate, daily test totals, 7 day case average, incubation period, six feet of social distancing, and at-risk age ranges are just some of the most common metrics. Obviously, vital research is being conducted using these quantities, and this is not meant as an anti-intellectual or conspiratorial screed. But some days I feel like we are the ancient Greeks, staring at the sky and charting the planets using major and minor musical scales.

Almost every day, I visit the CDC Covid Data Tracker, which collects all these numbers and more. The interactive graphs and quantitative specificity exude an air of authority. Yet, crucially, each of these metrics is an approximation, a best guess. We will never know the true totals and rates. No matter how many decimal places we account for and log-adjusted rates we calculate, numbers are crude, blunt instruments that can only ever describe the vague contours of the pandemic.

Now that we are beginning to open the country back up I worry that our obsession with numbers may be leveraged for callous justifications. Although numbers help us stay vigilant, they can also be wielded to justify reckless action. Blind confidence in numbers has the potential to transform a rubric of compassion and caution into a cost-benefit ledger sheet of risk vs. reward, inoculating us from the horror of death by cloaking it in impersonal percentages.

I think about my personal relationship to the the Covid-19 numbers, how they factor into my current state of mind. Normally, when I’m dealing with quantities, the smaller the number the more intimate, and the less abstract, it is. I’m able to see things few in number as themselves, not as quantities. “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million men is a statistic,” as they say. But this pandemic is peculiar. As the numbers add up, and the death toll rises, I feel less distant from this. Instead I feel the pandemic closing in on me; the mounting case figures feels like I’m sinking into quicksand.

I also think about the political significance of the numbers. We’re over 135,000 deaths now and confirmed cases are once again rising. Who’s to blame for all this senseless death? The president? Governors? Mayors? Individual Americans? Will anyone be tried for crimes? I happen to believe the more we focus on the personal transgressions of individual Americans the more we are distracted from holding the true perpetrators—politicians—accountable. They must pay us to fight this thing, or else we won’t fight it, not because we are bad people but because without actual relief such as paid leave, unemployment benefits, healthcare, and mortgage/rent suspension, fighting the virus by staying home currently amounts to a different kind of death—financial ruin.

Finally, I think about the numbers yet to enter the equation. When there is a vaccine, a new number will emerge as the most salient: how many people will get it and who? And if I know America, someone will be turning a huge profit. I fear the calculus to come.

Numbers are prisms. Held right so the light hits at the correct angle and a whole spectrum becomes visible. Held wrong, or stowed away in darkness, and the prism is empty and blank, nothing inside. Numbers are better than nothing, and I believe all policy decisions going forward should draw on the best numbers we’ve got. Once we do get a handle on this thing, though, I hope we are careful not to confuse harmony with astronomy.