Monday, February 8, 2016

Hewett, Beth L. (2015, November/December). A Review of WriteLab. WLN, A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship 40:34.

WriteLab is interesting software in that it tries to tackle stylistic problems with students' writing rather than technical problems. So, whereas a lot of international students would like to come into a writing lab and say, "just correct the grammar!", this software will be just like the tutor, and say, essentially, "Let's discuss clarity," or cohesion, logic, concision, or emphasis. The software has its own ways of deciding when you need one more than the other, or how it should go about giving you advice. It appears to me that this software presents a number of questions to the writer (such as "what effect do you think this (repetition) has on the reader?") - questions which, if the writer could answer them correctly, would clearly prevented their being in this situation in the first place. I am reminded of front-wheel trucks in mud, for some reason. I think my own students would last about ten minutes on WriteLab.

Ms. Hewitt likes the program, feels that it is in line with Writing Lab principles, and that it doesn't really threaten to take away the job of the Writing Tutor, who can basically ask the same questions, but then provide answers of some kind or another, after the writer gives the blank look caused by being aware that you have lost track of, or have no clue about, the effect your writing has on a reader. In my experience, good writers are hungry for advice about such things. And, it's not always clear; I am a native speaker, and am not sure myself what effect repetition, for example, has on other native speakers. I doubt the writing tutors here, in the variety we employ, would all give the same answer, or even similar ones.

This review reminds me of a couple of issues. First, I'll be the first to admit that such concerns as clarity, cohesion, logic, concision, or emphasis are, globally, more important than simple grammar concerns. I have no problem with a writing lab focusing on them and saying to the student, basically, this is what's unclear, and this is how you could make it better. These things are better done personally, face-to-face, and Ms. Hewett is right in saying "Fear not" - the tutor is not going to be replaced by this computer at this moment.

But the grammatical issues are in an entirely different class; it's almost like they occupy a world of their own, and our students are well aware of this. A student who has all of the issues above, and yet has no grammatical "mistakes" is in an entirely different class that a student who has even one of the issues above, and has at least one grammatical issue. Students tend to focus on the grammatical; they want it fixed, they want it right, and they're aware that the other stuff is somewhat personal and they'll have to be in the right mood to even listen to what you have to say about it.

The impulse to use technology to address these issues is worldwide; it's kind of like the urge to get married, or the urge to pass the TOEFL. We get an image of what's "right," and we seek it. We especially resent the feeling that technology is misinterpreting what we're doing, or leading us down the wrong path toward what's "right" (Ms. Hewett calls these "unhelpful digressive paths") - nobody has time to sort out helpful from unhelpful. She says something interesting - "students' primary revision operations are surface meaning-preserving deletions to write more concisely and substitutions of active for passive-voice constructions" (p. 12). I've gone on and on, for example, about how machines tend to discourage passive and offer active constructions as almost always preferable. Students are well trained to "seek" active alternatives, so as to go with the flow - but the advice given by the computer (in response to a sentence, "Lincoln was assassinated...." WriteLab said, "You might experiment with using a verb more descriptive than was to explain the action in this sentence. The verb was lacks detail or specificity: it could describe almost any action."

If I were to give such advice to my international students, I would be run out of the business, I should hope.

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