Writing to an Algorithmic Audience

When you are an English teacher, there are too many ways to teach. In the public view, you are teaching two really important skills: writing and reading. That’s a simplification. Teaching Language Arts is the cornerstone of being thoughtful, creative, patient, empathetic, revision/editing-oriented, network-seeking, analytical, open-minded, reflective, and well-spoken (or at least confident enough to speak what you need to).

When I started teaching, I had a sense of something missing, something that I thought I could provide: authenticity. I cringe at this part of my history even though I know it was necessary: without that passion, I might not have even gotten into the profession in the first place. But, I do believe this is not uncommon, in any profession really. But here it’s a requirement and an indication of professional expertise: good teachers, initially, always have savior syndrome. And when I use the term “good teacher,” I don’t mean the Platonic ideal, the perfect end result. I mean the receptacle, and that receptacle is the skill of constantly learning. A good teacher will do better and worse every year, but they always learn. Never stay stagnant. And this is on display on a meta-level, for students to see a living model. And with this passion, you confront your inchoate teaching career knowing that the education system needs a boost, and you are a helpful revamp. That sort of idealism and, I guess, healthy narcissism, landed me a job and kept me going.

In the beginning, I ignored all the people who said I was working too hard or too long. I stayed at school past 5 and 6 and 7 p.m. It’s easy to assume that since you are changing education for the good, that these people are wrong. But after a few months of work, of flailing to try and teach all of the skills that drew me to the profession and to also teach the body of the work—the many curriculums, meaning from your grade-level teams, school, or state—you realize you have been bested by the wisdom of veterans. You are the naive one. You have taken on too much. You start questioning your command of your profession and of your idealism. You burn out. And then you really must find the humility to reach out for stabilizing advice. It may be a pity-driven colleague that helps or a professional development book. I chose both, and I am thankful I did.

I ended that first year desperately feeling like I needed a restart. I was energized by it, a natural response to the helplessness I felt. The next year, I cut some things, added new things, and bolstered things that worked. I came back with what I can only say was a more measured naivety. I burned out again. And although it was a crushing blow, I still felt that same passionate need to restart, right at that same part of the year that I did my first year. In my third year, I came back with some more restrained idealism. A little less burn out. And then, in my fourth year, I felt like my career actually began.

I felt a fool, of course. By then, I had realized that this sort of teaching career arc was normal. Still, that idealism I had felt at the beginning felt so powerful. I was disheartened at its result, at what I did in the face of it. What helped me become a better teacher the most was daily trial and error: grappling with all those skills to deeply understand them myself and model them and teach them and find them for my students. On top of my day to day trials and errors, I read tons of professional literature on teaching and writing and reading. I threw ideas at colleagues and learned from their own teaching methods. I even presented my trail-and-errored ideas at teacher conferences, both county and state-wide. Idealism was my fuel, not my end result.

What I’ve learned is teaching is almost impossible. At least, in the sense of the romantic. All those movies you watch with teacher-centric plot lines have teachers that triumph with clear results. Some students do respond like this, but many students don’t show signs of digestion or even the proper amounts of improvement until later, after they have exited your class. And that makes sense, that all of these complicated skills I’m throwing at them would have a hard time sticking, especially when they themselves have other classes, biological maturation, outside engagements, stressors of many sorts, etc.

When you learn this, everything becomes simpler. Parent and Teacher Conferences become conversations on finding student interest or pushing students to be more creative or understanding how to overcome the perceived anxiety of failure that ELA must teach. Far better than nitpicking over how a student wrote a thesis statement on a paper or how a particular student needs to work more on identifying allusions.

The good thing is that you realize that your initial idealism was in the right place. Teaching ELA is not about just writing and reading, it’s about being a thinker that navigates the world, interacts with it, and hopefully makes it better. And when practicality meets that idealism, the compromise is a good one.

While I was learning all of this, I read a professional development book, the second by this author, that I’ll never forget due to its audacity—at the time—and the present circumstances. I was drawn to the book because I had been talking to other teachers about how to maintain the grading of large paper loads ELA teachers deal with. I once calculated, in a fit of procrastination in the midst of grading a ton of papers, that a class load of 130 students, at 10 minutes a paper, would take me about a little less than 22 extra hours to grade. It was easy to turn to an extremely well known educational guru who is absolutely on top of her game for some good and practical solutions, some of which I still use many years later. But there is this one chapter that struck me as hugely absurd at the time, enough so that it was the topic of a good collegial lunch smackdown, and this despite the author’s well-written arguments for efficient and meaningful grading practices. She argues that in order for students to write a lot and for teachers not to be overwhelmed with grading tons and tons, we should perhaps use computer software to grade some of our essays. This was nonsense to me.

How could computers grade creativity or audience awareness or any of those other skills I mention at the beginning of this essay? Maybe a computer could determine Lexile or grammar or topical words or style guide formatting, but really, empathy? We all had a good laugh. And I must say that this was in the face of the new push for data that is the current status quo, for using multiple choice tests and standardized essay prompts to both determine student achievement and teacher effectiveness. We were already feeling quite squished by the environment to put these very human things and distill them into numbers.

A couple years ago, thinking I could use some extra cash, I applied and was accepted to become an SAT grader. Before that, I aspired to be an AP Composition and Language grader after I attained the minimum requirement of three years of teaching. I thought both additions to my work life would be respectable ways to make some extra money. So far, I haven’t taught a third year of AP, and just when I was accepted for the SAT grading, the bug left. I was confronted with reading all of those essays. Ugh. Dry topics, rigamarole writing. True, I could sit on the porch and grade but at what cost? Well, $25 an hour. Not enough.

I can barely read things I like for 4 hours straight rather than diligently read essays written on the same topic by students whom I do not know. And as a related side note, the author of that professional development book is right: students need to write more, but we can’t read all of it. There is just no time, no mental stamina in the day for all of that. The honor system needs to prevail in some cases.

And before I could make the Holmesian connection myself, I read it: 75% of Ohio’s essays, since 2015, have been graded by computer algorithms. And this year, the 2017-2019 school year, all essays will be graded by computer algorithms.

I never would have thought that the first automation strikes of “thought labor” would be something as hard as evaluating writing. True, writing is something one can dwell on, and not as temporal as scrutinizing speaking. This seems to make it easier, more data-y. But writing can require much more scrutiny of thought and implications due to lack of other communicative markers like speaking tone and facial expression. It’s “thereness” makes it open to deeper things. Pair this with the skill of reading, something we must learn in a window of our development or have lifelong deficiencies, and we have some weird coming-to-termsness.

The implications of such a change depend on the seriousness you hold toward these exams. If you are a teacher, you may feel that being evaluated (as Ohio tests are paired with a teacher’s final evaluation) by a computer without your say or buy-in demeans the profession. If that is the goal at the end of the year, why not use computers to grade all tests?

Of course, being that pragmatic is not why teachers become teachers. We didn’t do so to game the system and show that we are good by dint of standardized tests. We did it because of idealism, of helping students see the world, be a part of it, and change it for the better. So, teachers will continue to teach as they do, but struggle with how to explain the standardized test grading procedures to students. How does one rationalize a computer evaluator when you have put so much effort into showing students the power of reading and writing and what that does to infinite variations of feeling and thinking audiences?

The most important parties in reading and writing are writer and reader, both living and approaching ineffable in the ways we think—unconscious, subconscious, and conscious—always too ineffableness for our liking. To imagine a reader, much less many readers of various experience and thoughtfulness and mindset, and to write in order to change that reader is a very difficult thing. Conversely, the language of computers does not include persuasion. Computers are commanded, at least for now.

The worst thing about computer-graded assessments is that digital evaluators lower the mark as to where students need to be when they graduate high school. The mark of a good writer is not due to knowledge of a subject area or using the correct jargon or emulating a proscribed structure of an essay, all of which I’m assuming is easy to create an evaluative algorithm for in some form. The mark of a good writer comes from empathy of audience, and finding some style of writing, some way to use an alphabet and an ever-changing language, to persuade a reader to ponder something and maybe even change their mind. And although this was never the end-goal of standardized tests, having computers as audience makes act far more of an act, far from authentic, which is the ideal. And such an ideal is not romantic. It is real.

But it’s fitting that the ultimate conclusion of a standardized assessment is to get the most standardized writing evaluator ever: a computer. That way, standardized assessments have met their ultimate form, a fitting ending of the story of standardized assessments.