April 07, 2010

What Next? Will Students Just Watch Podcasts of Computer Animated Instructors?

In a New York Times Article this week, a professor at the University of Houston explains that she has been outsourcing the grading of student papers to a company who employs graders in India, Singapore,and Malaysia!

Yes, all writing teachers and academics dread the arduous and, at times, oppressive task of grading twenty or more freshman comp. papers every week.  We joke about it daily.  As I type this, thousands of academics on college campuses around the nation sit, slumped over, head in hand, tethered with "ball and chain"to the sea of composition papers they never seem to finish grading.  However, we persevere and grade those papers because we agree upon certain truths about writing and teaching writing.
All teachers of writing know that a person's writing is like a person's fingerprint.  Narrative voice and style are idiosyncratic to each writer.  Many beginning writers are just beginning to develop a narrative style when they enter college.  Some are continuing to fine-tune their style, and others already have a distinctive style.  "Style" refers to the way a writer constructs sentences and pieces them together.  For example, a writer might begin many of her sentences with prepositional phrases or conjunctive adverbs.  Some writers may write in compound/complex sentences sprinkled with the occasional semicolon.  Other writers may write is simple sentences with generous use of first and second person pronouns.  Still other writers may use, or overuse, the same word or phrase throughout an essay.  The point I am attempting to make with all of these examples is that writing is distinctive.  Although much college writing may seem formulaic, style disrupts the formulas, and reveals the signature of each student.  

Therefore, as a writing teacher, the time I spend with student writing is invaluable.  Throughout a semester, I become intimately acquainted with my students' writing.  I actually learn their names based on their writing.  So then, when I look into their faces in the classroom, I say to myself, "Oh yes, Valerie,  Comma-Splice-Valerie," or "James, Mister-second-person-pronoun-using-James," or "Ah, yes.  It's Run-on-sentence-Melissa," and finally, "Ahmed, the best writer of the bunch.  Ahmed, who's going to have my job one day."

Therefore, a "grading mill" or outsourcing, or whatever we're calling it this week, couldn't possibly serve students or teachers well.  Although the professor in the article is a Business professor, she confirms what all writing teachers know all too well:  grading student essays is endless and grueling.  Yet, every writing teacher can attest to the value of reading, grading, and spending time with each essay personally.  Otherwise, we're just lecturing out of context.  We never truly know our students as writers and as people.

I don't want to sound like some relic from a bygone era, but honestly, this is ridiculous.  Next, society will just dispense with teachers altogether, and students will just download podcasts of computer animated instructors.  Is this what education has been reduced to?  Is this going to make the next generation smarter?