Why Computer Programs Will Never Replace Writing Teachers
The Matrix movies, the Terminator movies, 2001: A Space Odyssey, I, Robot. Machines rising up against humanity and taking over the world is a pretty common theme in film. It’s one of those irrational fears we experience when confronted with technology that’s beyond our comprehension. But I figure we’re safe because movies never get the future right. In fact, I still periodically get annoyed that it’s 2011 and we still don’t have hover crafts or jet packs. I mean, come on! I watched enough episodes of The Jetsons to be sure we’d have that stuff by now.
I admit I have been concerned, however, about some software that aims to put us writing teachers out of business. There are several programs out there that purport to evaluate writing. I honestly don’t know all that much about them, but I suspect they are super-juiced grammar checkers. You submit a paper and it gets run through an evaluation metric that likely provides data on sentence variety and vocabulary level. It surely finds what at least appear to be grammatical goofs.
It’s a good idea. Grading student papers is a difficult and time-consuming thing after all. Imagine if you could write a paper and have all the problems immediately identified (or even corrected for you!). I see the appeal.
But writing is a distinctly human endeavor. It is an aesthetic and unavoidably subjective thing. Would a computer be able to tell the difference between trashy summer romance novels and D.H. Lawrence? Between greeting card poetry and Robert Browning? Can a computer tell you if your tone was spot on or your attempt at humor successful? If you adeptly defended your argument or painted a vivid word-image? If you touched its heart or got on its last nerve? The answer, to my great relief, is no.
I don’t much care what a computer program thinks about my writing anyway; do you? I don’t write for electronic devices. I write for breathing, feeling, thinking people with tastes and opinions and an appreciation for beauty. That’s why I only care what humans think about my writing.
And it’s why aspiring writers will always need real, live writing teachers. Even if the machines really do takeover.
I’ve reviewed many products and services throughout the years. My least favorite ever was a computer program designed to evaluate writing. It was the hardest review I’ve ever written because it was difficult to find anything positive to say. Everything about it seemed contrived and unnatural. I suppose that’s because people need people in the writing arena. This was one expensive product that sat lonely and unused on my shelf.