Thursday, October 27, 2016

Robot Overlords

Maybe Black Mirror has broken me, but I've come to believe resistance in futile.

Engineers are going to develop tools that evaluate writing as effectively as a human.

We may be a long way from that reality, but even as we approach, what computers can glean from a text is impressive.

This worries a lot of people, and I get that.

Writing assessment is very complex work. It defines so much of what writing teachers do. But more importantly, writing assessment feels like something humans should own. Writing is, after all, a form of person-to-person communication. Right?

A computer-produced report on my writing is not a valid assessment, because it is not measuring a person's response to the text.

Only people can provide a valid assessment of a text written as person-to-person communication.

And you know what?
Teachers are people!

Teachers can do things computers can't do, like... be people.

This is a reasonable argument, up to a point.

See, teachers are people.
And people are the intended audience of most writing.
But, here's the thing, teachers are not the intended audience of most writing.

This is particularly true in college composition. As students begin college, they enter a new stage in their writing development. They are preparing to join various scholarly, civic, and professional communities.

Writing teachers do not belong to all of those communities.

As a writing teacher, if I am the only person a student has learned how to "write for," I have failed.

So, we cannot say 'the writing teacher provides a completely valid assessment.'

The only completely valid assessment of a text takes place when the actual intended reader reacts to the text.

I need my students to learn to write for a variety of readers.

My job is to help students understand this: From now on, as a writer, you will have to use what you know today in order to learn the rules anew each time you decide to write for a new audience or a new purpose.

There are tools I can give students to do that. So the function of college composition courses remains important.

But I need to leave some of the assessment to others - to my colleagues in other departments, to other students in the class, to other writing teachers, to potential employers, and the list goes on.

So, why not computers?

Are we afraid we are going to be replaced by robot writing assessors?

There is some legitimacy to that fear. If we believe that keeping people in "the assessment loop" is too expensive, or that the labor conditions writing teachers work under are unsustainable, then maybe it's time to welcome our robot overlords.


But that assumes we are satisfied with writing assessment as it is performed today. Are we comfortable saying that?
Try saying it: 
We know how to perform effective writing assessment that reliably predicts a person's ability to write across a wide variety of circumstances. 
I don't buy it. What we do is still very messy, and it's always going to be. That's what drew me to this work.

It was DalĂ­ who said, "Have no fear of perfection - you will never reach it."

So, when IBM rolls out a tool that produces "Personality Insights" based on text samples, I don't see that as IBM working to replace human readers. I see IBM tinkering with just how much computers can learn from writing - and maybe just how much they can contribute to a more comprehensive assessment of writing ability.

Here's what they learned about me in a Sunburst Chart:

Reading that analysis, it feels like I visited a psychic, and not in the "Wow, that's uncanny" way.

It feels like someone sized me up as I walked through the door and then made some vague observations using language intended to sound specific.

In other words, it still feels like a trick. It's a cool trick, and it's rooted in some pretty sophisticated understandings of human behavior and communication, but... it still feels like a trick.

Trick or no, it is progress. That computer made observations about me based on my writing.

I hope these tools get better, and as they do, I hope to use them to add more dimensions to the work I do when I assess the writing my students produce.

As it stands today, I recommend my students consider assessment from their peers, from me, from tutors, from roommates, from professors in their major, from grammar checking software, from study groups, and anywhere else they can get some assessment. And then I ask students to consider the feedback critically and use it to improve their work.

I can't think of a good reason to treat assessment software differently.

If someone tried to suggest that such software will replace me and all those other sources of assessment, I'm ready to tell them why that is absurd. But I think they know. If not, the computers will probably tell them...

Or will they?

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Why Johnny Can't Teach

A lot of my colleagues are super upset about an advice piece published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

For those of you who live outside of the world of composition studies, I'd like to explain what all the fuss is about.

I kid you not, the advice piece opens with this:
"My students can’t write a clear sentence to save their lives, and I’ve had it."

The author has dug himself into a hole right there. This is a teacher who starts the conversation by blaming students.

From barefootattitude
For professional compositionists, that's like blaming the controller in a video game (or the sound engineers at a presidential debate). Except, in this case, the author is blaming the people who have come to him for an education, blaming them for making his job difficult.

Please understand, this teacher's job is difficult.
Teaching students to write in a college setting is a profoundly difficult task...
But that is not the students' fault.

Students arrive at colleges and universities each semester with some writing skills, and then something frustrating (but important) happens.
The rules change.
Institutions ask students to repurpose those skills and apply them to a set of activities most students have never engaged in before.
Writing is no longer a way to show a teacher that "I did the reading."
Suddenly students are expected to use writing to critique a reading, analyze lab results, generate new understandings of a complex topic, and the list goes on.
Our most fortunate students may have started doing some of that in 11th or 12th grade, but it is an ability that requires years to develop. And while that ability is developing, general writing performance almost always dips a bit.

So, this advice piece starts in a bad place, a place that demonstrates a failure to understand what it is we are asking our students to work towards.

And that's just the opening sentence.

The author goes on to argue there's something else making his job difficult: The discipline of Composition Studies itself.

I'm not going to get into the weeds on this, but here's a breakdown of what happens.
The author lists three core principles associated with quality writing instruction.
The author states he has tried to teach using those principles.
The author claims the principles "rarely work."
The author goes back to blaming students.

That's right, back to blaming the students.
The author tells us that... 
  • "Students do not revise." 
  • Students do not know how to give good feedback to their peers 
  • Students don't use good advice when they get it
  • Students don't know how to use basic argument structures 
To which, I imagine many of my colleagues responded with (and please feel free to insert the profanity of your choice), "Do your job!"

From barefootattitude
It's all hard, but that's the job. 
We are teaching people how to write for academic purposes. Revision is necessary. The ability to recognize good writing is necessary. Understanding feedback from peers and mentors is necessary. The ability to make complex arguments is necessary. 

The ability to "write a clear sentence" is not enough, and if we ask students to do all the necessary work, the students' sentences are going to get messy. 

Stop complaining about how hard their work is. 
Get in there and help them do the hard work.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Well, That's Original

When most of my students think about plagiarism, they are afraid.

They are afraid of harsh consequences, marred permanent records, and potential expulsions.

This bothers me.

A lot.

Students are not introduced to the concept of academic integrity; they are introduced to the violation of that integrity. And often the introduction has a "guilty-until-proven-innocent" vibe.

I work hard to show why that fear is unproductive.

There is a reason universities treat intellectual property the way they do. It is a value the community holds, and not every community feels the same way. Students should know that when we enforce rules about academic integrity, we are not teaching a universally held belief. We are teaching the values of the institution.

I ask my students to explore this and write an informative essay for incoming freshmen that explains why higher education places such an emphasis on crediting our sources.

I'm looking forward to adding this set of posts from Imgur to the readings.
In it, one user animated another user's comic about how the community on treats original content.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Opening Our Doors

My dad and I do not see the world the same way when it comes to politics.

Once upon a time, our debates were ugly.
Over the past few years, however, we've found ways to discuss issues without getting shouty.

Part of what led to the increase in civility is a shared understanding that our positions in life are different.

My dad is a retired business owner.
I am an Assistant Professor working for a public university.

Those facts are enough to establish why some of our interests are not aligned. And they won't be, which is okay. That's why we vote. I don't get everything I want, but neither does he.

When we do debate (which is often), one of my dad's techniques is to argue that my views are the product of my life within the university: "You have to hold those views, Hogan. You can't be conservative on campus, right?"

When I first heard this, I though it was a jab, a way to dismiss my views as irrelevant or out of touch.
And let's face it. That may be the case. I expect my dad would deny as much (he'll let me know when he reads this), but you gotta admit, it is a rhetorically solid way to undermine my arguments.

Whatever that point does to my arguments, however, I've come around. He's right.

As an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition, I have to hold some pretty liberal views.

But not for the reasons most would assume. My job does not require generic "party-loyal liberalism."

As an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition, I have to be liberal about something very specific. Here it is:
The university should open its doors as wide as possible. Our mission should be to share our resources with everyone, regardless of class, race, ethnicity, religion, or language ability.

Those values are woven into the work I do as a scholar of rhetoric and composition.

Allow me to provide some context. My discipline was established not too long ago, when colleges and universities opened their doors a little wider after the Civil War. Suddenly there were students in the classroom who did not come from wealthy privileged backgrounds. The student population was no longer as homogeneous as it had been. Students wrote using regional styles of spelling and grammar. Composition courses were introduced to teach the academic voice. 

The role of higher education changed, and everyone was better for it.

This has happened again and again.

Over the years, at different historic moments, the doors to higher education have been opened wider and wider to include veterans, minorities, students with less income, students coming from under-resourced schools, students who speak other languages, and the list goes on. 

Each time, the role of higher education changed and everyone was better for it.

Don't get me wrong. It's hard work, and there have been people pushing back at each turn - good people - people who thought they were protecting "The University" from forces that would corrupt it. But through continued effort, the door keeps opening wider and wider. The effort is worth it. 

The more students we meet, the bigger our world becomes.

Sure, it's challenging to listen to people who see the world differently. You know, people like my dad. But those people have something to teach us. If we shut them out, even if we think we have good reason to shut them out, we all lose something.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Rhetorically Analyze This

It's not a favorite assignment of mine, but I know many teachers who ask students to perform a rhetorical analysis of a commercial.

Something like this:
Name the speaker, the purpose, and the intended audience; then describe how the message was crafted to achieve the purpose. It helps students understand what rhetoric is, and that's a good thing.

The results students produce, however, are often boring:
  • The ad shows us attractive cool people using the product, and the intended audience wants to be cool and attractive...
  • The ad presents a logical argument on price and value...
  • The ad makes us feel afraid of what might happen if we don't buy the product...
But these results are not boring because, as some might assume, students are boring.

Commercials are boring.

I don't ask students to write up rhetorical analyses of commercials because the most visible marketing campaigns often rely on easy rhetorical appeals - making for easy (read boring) papers.

What if, however, our students had to pick marketing material like this?

Trying to Describe Writing Ability

Yesterday, I asked my students to define "writing ability."

That may sound like a reasonable request to make, but it was not reasonable.

Try it. Try to write up a sentence or two that describes "writing ability."

I was happy when students recognized it begins with basic scribal skills. You need to be able to use the tools that create letters, words, and sentences. But that wasn't very satisfying. We all knew it was an incomplete description.

When teachers from other departments, policy makers, or professionals complain that 'this person' or 'that person' can't write, they are not talking about scribal skills.

So, what does it mean to say a person can write?
Or can't write?

It is a central question in the discipline of rhetoric and composition, which is a polite way of saying, "We don't know."

We have theories, and many of those theories are well supported.
The answer each scholar gives, however, often leads to more questions. And while that's true in many disciplines, it's particularly troublesome for writing teachers, because most people think they know what "writing ability" is.

Until people actually try to articulate an answer, they assume it is an easy question:
"What's writing ability? Well... It's the, ahh, ability to write, right?"

I don't want to give my students my answer (yet). I want my students to generate their own answers and build their practices out of those answers.

But what about you, dear readers?
How would you define writing ability?

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Dynamic Transfer at #IWAC16

I spent the end of the week in Ann Arbor at the International Writing Across the Curriculum Conference.

I presented the below on day one of the conference. Aside from some AV hiccups, the session went very well.

The research is from  my dissertation and it sums up the portion I'm currently writing up for an artilce I aim to submit to the WAC Journal.

The bit of knowledge I'm trying to introduce to the discourse is the concept of "dynamic transfer." It shows up about half way through the presentation where I shared a graph and table from the Martin and Schwartz chapter that describes dynamic transfer.

The graph is an adaptation of a learning model from artificial intelligence, and I think that's fun, but I also think the graph shows a number of learning trajectories that helped me understand learning to writing in new spaces.

Those learning trajectories are influenced by how complete a learner understands the key concepts related to a new task. What dynamic transfer offers is an acknowledgement that learners often enter a problem space with only partial knowledge of those key concepts. What happens when a learner has to innovate - create new knowledge - they coordinate that partial knowledge with resources in the new environment. The process takes time, and often results in a brief dip in performance.

I know that dip well. I've experienced it and I've seen it in my students.

I like that dynamic transfer adds some important detail to the mechanics of high road transfer - it goes into what happens when students "detect, elect, and connect" with prior knowledge.

I attended three panels (on the program D3, F1, H3, I1) that I felt this idea could inform. I was able to speak with Liane Robertson about this, and the discussion did a lot to deepen my understanding of transfer as a whole.

The conference was a great experience, and I look forward to unpacking all I learned.