Interested complicities: The dialectic of computer-assisted writing assessment

Ken S. McAllister, Edward M. White

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

7 Scopus citations


She knew how difficult creating something new had proved. And she certainly had learned the hard way that there were no easy shortcuts to success. In particular, she remembered with embarrassment how she had tried to crash through the gates of success with a little piece on a young author struggling to succeed, and she still squirmed when she remembered how Evaluator, the Agency of Culture's gateway computer, had responded to her first Submission with an extreme boredom and superior knowledge born of long experience, "Ah, yes, Ms. Austen, a story on a young author, another one. Let's see, that's the eighth today-one from North America, one from Europe, two from Asia, and the rest from Africa, where that seems a popular discovery of this month. Your ending, like your concentration on classroom action and late night discussion among would-be authors, makes this a clear example of Kunstlerroman type 4A.31. Record this number and check the library, which at the last network census has 4,245 examples, three of which are canonical, 103 Serious Fiction, and the remainder ephemera. (Landow 1992, 193-194) This excerpt from George Landow's tongue-in-cheek short story about "Apprentice Author Austen" and her attempts to publish a story on the international computer network, thereby ensuring her promotion to "Author," suggests a frightful future for writing and its assessment. The notion that a computer can deliver aesthetic judgments based on quantifiable linguistic determinants is abhorrent to many contemporary writing teachers, who usually treasure such CPU-halting literary features as ambiguity, punning, metaphor, and veiled reference. But Landow's "Evaluator" may only be a few generations ahead of extant technologies like the Educational Testing Service's e-rater, and recent developments in the fields of linguistic theory, natural language processing, psychometrics, and software design have already made computers indispensable in the analysis, if not the assessment, of the written word. In this chapter, we approach the history of computer-assisted writing assessment1 using a broad perspective that takes into account the roles of computational and linguistics research, the entrepreneurialism that turns such research into branded commodities, the adoption and rejection of these technologies among teachers and administrators, and the reception of computer-assisted writing assessment by the students whose work these technologies process. Such a broad treatment cannot hope to be comprehensive, of course. Fortunately, the field of computer-assisted writing assessment is sufficiently well established that there exist numerous retrospectives devoted to each of the roles noted above-research, marketing, adoption, and use-many of which are listed in the bibliography at the end of this book. Our purpose here in this first chapter of an entire volume dedicated to computer-assisted writing assessment is to offer readers a broad perspective on how computer-assisted writing assessment has reached the point it occupies today, a point at which the balance of funding is slowly shifting from the research side to the commercial side, and where there is-despite the protestations of many teachers and writers-an increasing acceptance of the idea that computers can prove useful in assessing writing. This objective cannot be reached by examining the disembodied parts of computer-assisted writing assessment's historical composition; instead, such assessment must be treated as an extended site of inquiry in which all its components are seen as articulated elements of a historical process. This complex process has evolved in particular ways and taken particular forms in the past half century due to a variety of social and economic relations that have elevated and devalued different interests along the way. In the following sections we trace this web of relations and suggest that theoretically informed practice in particular circumstances-what we will be calling "praxis"-rather than uncritical approbation or pessimistic denunciation ought to guide future deliberations on the place of computer-assisted writing assessment in educational institutions. Our hope is that by surveying for readers the technological, ideological, and institutional landscape that computer-assisted writing assessment has traversed over the years, we will help them-everyone from the greenest of writing program administrators to the most savvy of traditional assessment gurus-develop some historical and critical perspective on this technology's development, as well as on its adoption or rejection in particular contexts. Such perspectives, we believe, make the always difficult process of deciding how to allocate scarce resources-not to mention the equally dizzying process of simply distinguishing hype from reality-considerably more straightforward than trying to do so without some knowledge of the field's history, technology, and "interested complicities.".

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationMachine Scoring of Student Essays
Subtitle of host publicationTruth and Consequences
PublisherUtah State University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Print)087421632X, 9780874216325
StatePublished - 2006

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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