Sunday, March 20, 2016

Data at hand

This year I had a breakthrough in that I took a novel approach to my own class, and got unusual feedback. I had maintained for years that students used a variety of technologies in the process of writing; that they often misunderstood or misused feedback from those technologies; that they very rarely wanted to share what they'd learned with us, because of feelings that we, teachers, wouldn't approve the use of them; and, we were in a jam, to some degree, trying to figure out where their writing had "gone bad" with a lack of information about the processes that had misled them to such a degree.

So, this term, in the process of trying to get them to explore and use a concordance, I required them to write an essay about the technologies they use and their frustrations or successes with any particular one. The concordance was a chapter of its own, since it detected that fifteen of us were accessing it at once, and shut down demanding money; thus leaving me to say to the students, in effect, write about anything; if you have trouble accessing the concordance, you can write about that trouble, or write about any other technological aid that you use. One student actually wrote about, and recommended, Grammarly.

This was interesting to me because Grammarly is the biggest, and most prominent, of grammar-checker services that influence student writing (outside of Word itself, which is the god of technological grammatical intervention in student writing). Grammarly, by securing startup funding, got a wide enough user base to actually explore what works and what doesn't, and got a head start on other grammar checkers by simple virtue of being able to employ more full-time programmers. But its intervention, as is the case with most grammar-checkers, is not perfect.

From my own point of view, this development is ideal, because now I know for sure that certain grammatical patterns are a product of Grammarly's intervention; or, at least, that Grammarly was unable to correct or revise some of them. I would not criticize or admonish this student; I leave to them the choice of using what tools, when, and teach them, ultimately, to manage each, with the awareness that none of them are perfect. This is especially true of the Word software, which is speaking to the writer in green or in red, constantly, whether one asks for it or not, unless the writer is conscious, assertive and deliberate enough to gut the program and disable the service. One can never underestimate the subconscious effect of a red line that, in essence, tells you that you've spelled your own name wrong, but will also remind you of anything that doesn't match up well with its concept of what constitutes a "word." I start out with my students by telling them that you have to make friends with such a voice, and know when it's giving unhelpful advice, and know, if possible, why. They are tools, and like your hammer, they are not useful in every situation.

To unravel why student writing appears the way it does, one has to have a clear picture of the technological influences on it, and the reasons students choose what they do, in the process of negotiation with technological advice. I think it is possible to gather technological clues, so that, for example, I can say to a student: I suspect you use Grammarly; or, I suspect you responded to Spell-check in the process of coming up with this spelling. These clues will help us open the door. The goal is a clear and accurate picture of the influences that change their writing. Those influences are not always bad, but when they are bad, they are bad in such a way that often makes their writing harder to read, and ultimately does them a disservice. The proper management of these systems will help them make better writing, thus stalling until they make better writing naturally; that is the ultimate goal. One cannot simply ostrich oneself to the technological influences of the modern world, though I suppose, in principle, one could prohibit them, and then pretend that what is written, was actually created by the student himself/herself.

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