Sunday, May 26, 2013

Computers grading writing?

Journals all over the world, Korea included, have been delving into the question of whether or not computers can or should be used to assess student writing.  Teachers and students continue to be opposed to the idea, even if it would make their jobs quite a bit easier.  The NCTE just released its statement on the matter.  Unsurprisingly, teachers, teacher advocates, and those associated with NCTE feel that writing is too nuanced, too complex, in short, too human an activity to be graded by machines.  Here is a great little article that gives some practical examples of how difficult it is to grade writing.
I'm personally opposed to the idea of computers assessing writing for a number of reasons... but I don't think it is helpful to play the "we're essentially human and computers can't get that" argument.  Mostly because if that argument still holds water, it probably won't for very long.  It's an argument that's bound to end up on the losing side of technological history.  

Let's face it, if a human activity is based on any sort of pattern or set of conventions, sooner or later there will be an algorithm that can anticipate and reproduce it.   Those who discuss the nuances of writing and the beautiful complexity of human thought that writing encompasses are playing a waiting game.  Technology is only getting better, and that argument is not only doomed to historical failure, it completely misses the real issue at hand here.  

Humans (and especially students) are masters at adapting to their environments.  Language use is no different.  It doesn't take very long for most students to work out what a teacher wants from them, what they have to do to gain approval, and what they can get away with.  In short, school writing, like any kind of language use, is a social activity that is always in a process of adaptation.  Users of language are always "adapting to others' adaptations".  I can remember plenty of times that I wrote to teachers or professors in order to project a certain image of myself, by referring to a random comment they may have made in passing, trying to establish a common point of interest, political perspective, or world-view...  In short, writing is about making a connection with a reader.

I'm sure this sounds like I'm slipping into the "but we're so wonderfully human" argument... I'm not.  

As we human-folk are always in a process of adapting to our environments, I'd like to consider what it would mean to ask students to write their school essays to a computer.  What kind of writing can we expect from a student who is (very wisely) adapting to the expectations of a machine that is judging her work?  Gone is the opportunity to 'impress' your reader, to coax the reader into or out of a particular way of thinking, of projecting an image to the reader, of surprising the reader....  I think that we might expect this student to write more efficiently, in a more standard format, to take fewer risks, and to generally do no more or no less than complete the required task. 
In a fabulous short essay called Why I won't be Using Rubrics to Respond to Students Writing, Maja Wilson  demonstrates how teachers have the capacity to become machine-like in their grading and how there is constant pressure for us to do so.  

One might suggest that the more standardized and quantified our responses to our students become, the more feasible it becomes that a computer could do our work.  The task is, then, not a matter of exposing the shortcomings of current technology but in addressing the ways that our jobs as teachers have already been reduced to work that could be done by a machine.  The issue has nothing to do with computers taking the place of humans but of questioning the context in which such a thing could even be conceived.

[an aside]
I remember co-teaching in a high school English class.  The full-time teacher and I decided to put together a lesson on juxtaposition.  We asked students to bring in a photograph and to select a song.  During the class, students swapped songs and pictures.  While listening to the songs, we asked them to write their thoughts- "what does this mean?" / "how does the song relate to the picture?" and so on.  Before we started, we got the obligatory "how long should it be?" / "what exactly do you want us to write?" / "is this for a grade?"  

What struck me, both before and during the activity, was that we were envisioning the students writing for the purpose of catharsis or expression.  We were hoping for students to communicate a message through the song/picture juxtaposition and for those listening to not only 'get' the message, but to produce a creative expression of how the juxtapositions impacted them.

What we got were short sentences that were obviously written only in order to complete the assignment.  

My point is not that the lesson flopped (though it clearly did).  My point is that writing... school writing, is something that we have been in a process of reducing to its lowest common denominator for years.  As we make writing into a 'school' activity, we subject our students' ideas, thoughts, and expressions to a numerical grid.  Now that computer programs are being written which are just as efficient, consistent, and accurate (perhaps) at quantifying written thoughts, teachers are calling on the "all too human" card.  We (not everyone mind you, but public education as an institution) have been acting as imperfect computers for years.  It strikes me as ironic that we are now in an uproar over the very natural progression to computers acting as imperfect humans.  

I hope that the fact that computers can (or soon will) be able to quantify writing as effectively as humans might serve as a wake-up call.  My hope is that this exposes not the imperfections of computers but the long evolving process of reducing human experience, activity, and expression to quantified measurements.  The current debate strikes me as little more than humans acting as imperfect computers complaining about computers acting as imperfect humans.  All the while, we are leaving unquestioned the dehumanizing effects of an education system that has given birth to the idea that the work of teachers could be reduced to the calculations of automated machines.  

Friday, May 10, 2013

Ideology, Queer Theory, and Classroom Practice(?)

Last week's discussion seemed to emphasize the point that we can read a text in any way we choose. In other words, if we wish to find sexism in a text, then we will find sexism. If we want to find class issues, colonialist perspectives, or racism we will certainly find those as well. In other words, we see what we look for.
I think this clip offers a great example of this point:

One could look at the woman who is positioned as subservient to the male customer. He calls her by her first name and she has to accept this because she is this unequal position.  One could argue that this commercial reiterates traditional and somewhat oppressive roles that a woman must take up, and that it suggests that the successful male is in a much different (and more powerful) social role than the successful female.  Her role has been reduced to accepting his mildly sexual advances and this is the acceptable way to respond to such men.

What kind of man is this? What is the significance of the alpha-male persona and what does this say about the successful modern man? It seems reasonable to suggest that this advertisement produces an image of material success and seeks to convince viewers that in order to be successful in our globalized world, one must be stylish, well-groomed, international, and wealthy enough to travel in business class.

Racism or Colonial Concerns? 
One might consider the relationship between the white male and the submissive non-white woman whose duty is to make this man's life comfortable.  Further, this advertisement (from a company based out of Hong Kong, I believe) seems to be tacitly drawing on a historical relationship between Britain and Hong Kong and reinstating a position of subservience to a past colonial power (symbolized by the White Englishman) and associating the former colony with servitude and femininity.


One of the primary goals of the course thus far has been to present a variety of lenses through which we can view various texts. We have been hoping to show that our 'common sense' or habitual way of 'reading' is only one of many, and that there are always other ways to understand and interpret the messages in a given text. But my concern is that in focusing on all these different 'lenses', we might be overlooking very simple and very important questions: “what do I think of this text?”  "How does this text speak to my experience?"  In other words, I worry that the structure of the syllabus might have led us to overlook the value of personal experience and reduced critique to little more than an intellectual exercise.

As I have said all along, the purpose of all this cultural theory we have worked in/through is NOT to simply understand theory.  The purpose has been to grasp new tools and to consider various ways of thinking and reading.  That said, is there a danger in viewing these political issues as mere 'tools'?  Would those impacted by sexism, racism, and other forms of institutional violence be comfortable with these issues being presented as 'lenses' or 'tools'?  In other words, is the approach to the syllabus one that could only have been constructed by a straight, White, middle-class, native English speaking, American, male?

I would like to stress that the capacity to view a text from multiple perspectives does not necessarily mean that these various readings (feminist, classist, postcolonial, racist) are not extremely important explanations.  Racism is real.  Sexism is real.  The effects of hundreds of years of colonialism are still with us.  I do not wish to make light of political and social struggle.  

Yet still.... I think it's always important to view these issues from a historical and context specific perspective.  Consider the following promotion picture from the group "The Bubble Sisters".  This is a dated photo and a long since forgotten band, and there has been a good degree of discussion on this already here, here, and here.  So I'll just say that given the historical significance of blackface, it seems more than fair to call out the racist nature of the photo.  Though given the fact that the history and the cultural references in Korea are much different, there is a question of whether or not cultural distance is an excuse.  Another example is in the Japanese commercial that depicts a talking monkey, who is dressed in a tie and speaking at a podium calling for "Change".  Is this a reference to Obama?  Are the advertisers racist?  Again, my immediate reaction is "YES, of course!"  Clearly the history and the cultural references are troubling.  But these are not the same in Japan... so again, the question that comes up is, "to what degree is this culture responsible for the possible meanings of its texts?"

I am not going to delve into a deeper reading of these problems.  But I will say that it seems clear that both history and context are equally important factors to consider.  For example, what are the implications of a White male calling Koreans 'racist' for producing these kinds of ads?  What kinds of power have enabled me to make these kinds of proclamations?  Is there a difference between me calling this image racist and a black woman who is living in Korea calling it racist?  It seems that the meaning(s) of a given text is never completely closed.  So while a text might project obvious and overt racism, there are always a variety of depths to which this can be read.  And if I dare say, there remains the potential for negotiation and exploration.

So this leads to the question of ideology.  In the work we have done so far, ideology acts as a primary explanation for our interpretations. We interpret things in a certain way because that's the 'normal' way of seeing things. If a woman is represented as 'serving' and 'pleasing' a male in a dominant position, that's because we view this as a normal and acceptable practice. And it isn't until we recognize the ideology of sexism that we begin to question the 'naturalness' of these kinds of representations.
Uncovering such ideologies is essentially what we've been trying to do with our focus on Received & Oppositional readings of texts. Received readings are meant to allow us to recognize the 'normal' or 'naturalized' way of understanding something.  What assumptions are made, how is the audience supposed to react?  Oppositional readings are geared towards provoking readings that see beyond these damaging ideologies. Concepts like feminism, Marxism, postcolonialism, and institutional racism are meant to offer us more liberating (and more accurate) views of the world and how we are positioned with it.
In other words, by revealing the nature of ideology, we might get a glimpse of the 'true' nature of oppression and we are therefore empowered to begin envisioning a more just and equal world.   That means that ideological approaches to reading assume that a more just society and a freer self are lying dormant, waiting for us to lift the veil of ideology so we can begin creating a better world.  

In terms of feminism, these ideological shifts have often been described as follows:

> Liberal Feminism
(1st wave)
Opposed to men.  Women can do anything men can do.  We must remove traditional gender roles in order to benefit women and society as a whole.  Equal pay for equal work, equal opportunities, and legislation can lead to equality.

> Cultural Feminism
(2nd wave)
Opposed to masculinity.  Women have unique and essential qualities (namely, the capacity to give birth) that has produced a feminine sensibility and female ways of 'being in the world'.  Women are inherently more subjective, nurturing, and emotional.  Rather than seeking to join a masculine-dominated world, women would do well to create spaces free of masculinity and patriarchy.

> Poststructuralism
(3rd wave)
Opposed to essentialism.  There is no single quality that captures the essence of anyone.  All categories are social conventions and these social conventions are produced through relations of power.  The problem is not so much in the oppression of a specific group of people as much as it resides in the creation of categories.  Naming and categorizing are tendencies that must be challenged and the nature of the individual is always fragmented, partial, and unfinished.  "What is intolerable is no longer so much that which does not allow us to be what we are, as that which causes us to be what we are"    - Miguel Morey

Performativity & Queer Theory  
These are two concepts that grew out of the later work of Michel Foucault and are closely associated with Judith Butler.  Butler borrows from Austin's idea of Speech Acts, and applies it to subjectivity.  Put simply, Austin classifies two kinds of statements... constatives and performatives.  Constatives simply describe the nature of reality.  They are propositions that can be either true or false.  "The light is on" or "today is my birthday" would be examples.  Performatives are statements that themselves carry out an act.  "I do", "you pass" and so on.  In speaking, the speaker carries out some real world function.  These statements are not true or false, they simply carry out an act.
[incidentally, this is the means by which the right to 'free speech' does not give someone the right to yell "fire" in a public place.  In yelling "fire", one is not only 'speaking' but also performing an act.  Stanley Fish has also argued that this is the grounds for banning hate speech in places that guarantee free speech.  In spreading hate speech, one is actually performing an act of hatred and therefore not simply 'speaking', but also acting.  And of course, it would be absurd to make a law protecting one's right to free action because that would, by nature, make all other laws null-and-void.]

Anyway, Butler suggests that in saying "It's a girl" at the baby's birth is not a constative statement, but a performative one.  In saying "it's a girl", one ascribes a certain range of possible identities to this individual and creates the conditions into which this individual can be recognized.

Interestingly enough, modern medicine is now beginning to make similar claims that there are no objective grounds for determining sex in the ways that we conventionally do so.

These categories are actually on a continuum, meaning that individuals are not simply men or women in a simple sense, but actually fall within a combination of continua, the result of which is a somewhat arbitrary socially constructed category.

There is no objective foundation for an essential sexuality.  The issue for poststructuralists is in the 'naming', compartmentalizing, and categorizing of individuals.

This is a great documentary that goes into much more detail....

A quote by Ben Franklin shows the degree to which race is a historical and social construct:
"All Africa is black or tawney; Asia chiefly tawny; (native) America wholly so.  And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians, and Swedes are generally of what we call a swarthy complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal body of white people on the fact of the earth."

> So what does this have to do with reading?  With classroom practices?

The 'hail' and the 'turn'

"Practical" instructor / "Theoretical" instructor / Native speaker / "Westerner"


A classroom application

Nancy Chunn's New York Times art project:

And just for kicks, a new video just went viral: