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robot graders, new aesthetic, and the end of the close reading industry

This post brings together several threads I've been pondering recently: the explosion of conversation over the new aesthetic (see Ian Bogost and Bruce Sterling), conversation about the future of digital humanities (see Steven Ramsay and Ted Underwood), and an insightful post from Cathy Davidson on attention and education.

If you aren't familiar with new aesthetic, the links above provide some starting places, particularly the first one, which takes you to James Bridle's tumblr collection of all things NA. Bridle coined the term and has been collecting these examples ever since. As I understand it, the basic concept of NA is an effort to understand the aesthetic processes of digital technologies: how do digital objects respond to the world they sense? And perhaps more to the point, how does our growing human sensitivity to this aesthetic dimension shape our own design and artistic practices? Given this, one can understand Bogost's interest and also his response that NA "needs to get weirder." However I am also interested in what Bridle says at the end of his SXSW talk.

the network is not a space (notional, cyber or otherwise) and it’s not time (while it is embedded in it at an odd angle) it is some other kind of dimension entirely.

BUT meaning is emergent in the network, it is the apophatic silence at the heart of everything, that-which-can-be-pointed-to. And that is what the New Aesthetic, in part, is an attempt to do, maybe, possibly, contingently, to point at these things and go but what does it mean?

Perhaps it is a "spime." Or perhaps this is Bridle's attempt to express an OOO-like insight into the withdrawn nature of objects. Maybe both. In any case, NA reads to me as another manifestation of a speculative realist sensibility, in this case one that comes out of the design houses of London rather than humanities departments and academic blogs. 

So what does this have to do with grading, digital humanities, and close reading? Bridle offers an answer to the first item here, where he links to this Inside Higher Ed article about robot grading as yet another example of NA. And why not? If facial recognition, satellite imagery and splinter camouflage are NA, why not the responses evoked in machines by reading student papers? Computerized grading systems rely upon the relatively consistency in the way in which essays are scored. The qualities the software identifies may not be the same the qualities humans identify but as long as the score that is produced is satisfactory then it doesn't really matter how the sausage gets made (or at least that's the premise). Here's a bit from that article:

AES software has not yet been able to replicate human intuition when it comes to identifying creativity. But while fostering original, nuanced expression is a good goal for a creative writing instructor, many instructors might settle for an easier way to make sure their students know how to write direct, effective sentences and paragraphs.

“If you go to a business school or an engineering school, they’re not looking for creative writers,” Shermis says. “They’re looking for people who can communicate ideas. And that’s what the technology is best at” evaluating.

Shermis is the dean of education at Akron university and a lead researcher on this project. I think that last line is telling: technology is best at evaluating people who can communicate ideas. It is a classic cybernetic perspective, I would think. Communication can be mathematically described and evaluated. No creativity is require for writing "direct, effective sentences and paragraphs." If this is the case, then why not have the machines also write the papers? If they can crunch the data, why don't computers write their own business analysis reports? Why don't they write their own technical documentation? From my perspective there's no doubt that computers can write, that they can read, and that they can have responses to texts. And while computers may not have the same aesthetic responses as humans that doesn't mean they can't identify creativity.

Shermis' conceptual error is the classic modern one. Of course he doesn't mean to say that business majors or engineering majors don't need to be creative in some fashion. He doesn't mean to suggest that his school is seeking to cultivate dull, unimaginative students. He just separates "creative writers" from creative people so that the students have creative ideas but communicate them in an "uncreative," dull, mechanical, machinelike way where the fact that computers and people have different ideas about creativity doesn't matter. 

Coming at this from a different direction, Cathy Davidson offers an explanation for why this entire approach is wrong-headed. And from an NA/OOO viewpoint, we might say that Davidson explains why an approach like Shermis' recognizes something that is happening but draws the wrong conclusions. She writes

If everything about the Industrial Revolution, Taylorism ("scientific labor management") and mass compulsory education (what I call "scientific learning management") is designed to rejigger humanity's attention to the needs of mass production, there is no question that since 1993 or so we've had a huge spanner thrown into the industrial works.  But to return us to the industrial way of paying attention neither addresses the forms of attention we need to succeed in the digital age nor does it return us to a mindful, meditative state.   It simply reinforces an increasingly irrelevant form of learned attention.

That is, modern education was/is about factory work, about transforming people to meet the demands of interfacing with particular kinds of machines in a particular workflow. The focus on a specific kind of attention results from those demands. 

What we ought to learn from NA is that while this particular aesthetic may be "new" right now, what is not new is the way that objects have always participated in our aesthetics. Industrialized attention, the kind where you watch widgets coming down the conveyor belt, is a trained aesthetic sensibility. In the composition classroom, the widgets on the belt are student papers. If computers can read like people it's because we have trained people to read like computers. The real question we should be asking ourselves is why are we working in this widget factory? And FYC essays are perhaps the best real world instantiation of the widget, the fictional product, produced merely as a generic example of production. They never leave the warehouse, never get shipped to market, and are never used for anything except test runs on the factory floor. 

I'm interested in how machines read, but I'm not interested in their ability to mimic the dullest responses that humans can generate. Instead, I'm interested in the ways that computers (and other objects) participate in the aesthetic experiences of composition in ways that are "creative" rather than explicitly ignoring creativity. Rather than think of writing as a process where students produce widgets that can pass factory inspection (by robots or humans), maybe we can take up Davidson's suggestion, which might be read here as an invitation to develop new aesthetic relationships.

And this brings me finally to DH and Ted Underwood. Underwood suggests that neither the study of digital objects nor the use of digital technologies to conduct analysis will transform the humanities, which will prefer to remain "as is." Here is an extended bit from a reply he makes to comments:

If DH helped the humanities embrace the concept of “practice” wholeheartedly, we could join forces with librarians and start teaching students an active kind of critical literacy that included a bit of hacktivism and a dash of statistics along with history, critical theory, and rhetoric. That’s probably what we need in the 21st century.

Five months ago I was more sanguine about that happening. I’m feeling skeptical now because I have a growing awareness that most humanists may not want the future we’re both envisioning. But I’m not pessimistic about the big picture; I’m just beginning to think that the energy you describe may end up located mostly in disciplinary interstices instead of being located “in” the humanities. Hope I’m wrong, though; I would rather live in your future!

To be fair to my colleagues, I have to add that the real question may be this: What do English majors want? Some of the stuff we’re talking about is hard. If English majors wanted to take informatics, they would. Maybe they prefer to sit in a circle, discussing Heart of Darkness. And the way our system is structured, there are strong incentives to give students what they prefer.

I very much agree with Underwood here, and I think his vision of the 21st century is similar to Davidson's. I also share his skepticism. At this same time, I think the "close reading" model that dominates English and is exemplified here in the example of Conrad is one that is ultimately linked with computerized grading and industrial modes of attention. That is not to suggest that in the future we will not need to pay close attention to things. However it is an error to conflate paying attention with the specific industrial modes of attention that dominated the last century. While the current flavors of DH will change and perhaps disappear (or at least become unrecognizable), I believe they are part of this larger aesthetic and rhetorical shift that will demand a different response to humanistic objects. Think about this way. In the 19th century, literature was mostly read for style, as a way to help students develop their own oratorical techniques. That seems strange and distant, almost impossible. Someday in this century, we will view close reading in an analogous manner. And while I understand Underwood's gesture to be fair to his colleagues, I don't think that's the real question. Maybe English majors want to do close reading of Conrad, but there are far fewer such people each year it seems. 

What we require is a new aesthetic sensibility to drive our study of these objects.


One reply on “robot graders, new aesthetic, and the end of the close reading industry”

[…] Ideally, our students leave our courses armed with insights they will apply to future endeavors, but…what if machines could provide those same insights, at just a fraction of the coffee? Robograders have been around for a while, but a new study claims they are even more efficient and accurate than human graders. “Accurate” here means that they’re better at calibrating test essays to the control essays supplied to graders. The news has prompted several thoughtful reflections. […]


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