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.

Dernst’s language compass

I’m currently working on my dissertation prospectus, which considers the next steps Automated Essay Scoring (AES) and Natural Language Processing (NLP) technologies are taking to enable machines to read and interpret language beyond surface level textual features. The big question mark is whether machines can assess the rhetorical dimension of writing, such as the use of metaphor, analogy, and persuasion, and how those and linguistic qualities like them might best be modeled, both statistically and conceptually. Here’s a quick mock-up of a compass-style model of two aspects of language I’m constantly assessing, the actual words used and the intent behind them:

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The degree of metaphor of an utterance’s words is contrasted with that of its literalness, while the orthogonal axis contrasts the degree of irony of an utterance’s intent with that of its sincerity.

Edit: An example might prove instructive. I would map the phrase “tax relief” onto the yellow square, as “ironic and metaphorical.” The metaphorical quality is obvious, since “relief” substitutes from an area other than taxation to pre-figure taxation as evil theft, which is itself not literal but also a metaphor. The irony is that those who utter the phrase “tax relief” don’t actually mean it.