Winston Churchill, Developing Writer

by Robert Pondiscio
November 12th, 2009

We shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender.

A computerized program aimed at assessing student writing skills for English “A levels” deems passages by Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and other titans of prose lacking.  Churchill’s rousing WWII speech was too repetitive for the computer’s tastes.

(H/T: Will Fitzhugh, Concord Review)

7 Comments »

  1. Yeah, and that Martin Luther King said “I have a dream” way too many times in a row. Better dock him for that.

    The rhetorical figure is called “repetitio,” and it’s been around for millennia. But at least computer-based essay-grading will save a wad of cash–the history of rhetoric be damned….

    Comment by Claus — November 12, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

  2. Well, speeches are NOT expositiory writing. A term paper in the style of Churchill’s speech WOULD be excruciating. So would a term paper in the style of Hemmingway, Henry James, or Shakespeare!

    Perhaps the program is just VERY SPECIFIC— designed to grade TERM PAPERS, not oratory, drama, or fiction!

    Comment by Deirdre Mundy — November 12, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

  3. Dierdre–

    Perhaps. But there could be occasions where repetition as a rhetorical figure is very appropriate in expository writing–or any kind of persuasive writing. A computer program isn’t sophisticated enough to pick up on that kind of nuance. That, in itself, is troubling. The best writers, those who learn to go out on a limb or two, may be penalized.

    Comment by Claus — November 12, 2009 @ 7:26 pm

  4. Good point– but as any AP English teacher will tell you, standardized tests are NOT a time to show off your best writing. They’re a chance to show you can write in the 5 paragraph form, use proper grammar, and make a clear, concise argument supported by facts.

    Honestly, I’d prefer that every kid get a first-class writing curriculum with a dedicated teacher… BUT most High School students can’t even write a coherent paragraph. The good writers CAN force themselves to write a dull but sufficient essay for the exam. The bad writers can’t.

    The computers would solve bias problems like the ones outlined in the NYT a few weeks ago. (Brilliant essays on inappropriate material, unclear rubrics, etc. etc.) And I’m sure, when the occasion called for it, Churchill was able to produce a dull 5 paragraph essay.

    Comment by Deirdre Mundy — November 13, 2009 @ 10:23 am

  5. Could a computer though pick up things like brillant essays on subtly the wrong topic?

    Comment by Tracy W — November 13, 2009 @ 11:55 am

  6. “A computer program isn’t sophisticated enough to pick up on that kind of nuance. That, in itself, is troubling. The best writers, those who learn to go out on a limb or two, may be penalized.”

    Neither was my tenth grade English teacher.

    Comment by Margo/Mom — November 13, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

  7. Hmmm… Tracy…. maybe not, if the student used the appropriate words and phrases.

    I have to admit, as a HS student I would have found it tempting to try to devise and essay that would get a ’5′ from the computer while actually undermining the intent of the original question……..

    Really, standardized writing tests tend to be pretty poor judges of writing anyway— An intensive English course with weekly papers and rewrites is probably a better bet— but since most tests aim for minimum competence, a computer is probably a pretty good way to grade the essays…. Especially since students DON’T get actual useful feedback from human graded tests, just a raw score…. so how is a computer following a rubric any worse than an underpaid contract worker following a rubric?

    Comment by Deirdre Mundy — November 13, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

While the Core Knowledge Foundation wants to hear from readers of this blog, it reserves the right to not post comments online and to edit them for content and appropriateness.