Tuesday, November 04, 2008

grammar technology

A few years back Spell-check snuck up on us, and I was quick to point out that all the consequences of this were not good. It was not that I was opposed to Spell-check, as some people accused me of being; it was more that I felt that such innovations arrive; we adopt them; we don't question what we've lost in the process; they become a staple and necessity of our existence; we can't imagine what we'd do without them; why would anyone learn how to spell when a machine can do it for you?

You follow where I'm going with this; the same is obviously happening with Grammar-check. And, it's not that I'm concerned that a whole population of Americans, or international students, will lose the ability to think about grammar, or even the feeling that they might need to, in the rush to get where they're going. Yes, a good machine might leave a grammar teacher in the dust; it could conceivably correct every error, or at least give the students enough good choices to correct every error on their own.

I'm more concerned with some of the more subtle ramifications of the thorough integration of a machine into the working systems of the majority of writers in the country. For example, with Spell-check, we can now observe certain patterns: errors of there/their/they're seem to be more common, since Spell-check can't catch them, but since it catches all errors of non-words, we see none of those. If the mediocre speller slips through the cracks, the machine at the end of his/her fingers is making that harder to discern; we must now spot the lazy references, the unclarity of thought, and are no longer able to rely on sloppy spelling as a first indicator of inexperience or careless craft. For international students, many of whom are clear thinkers, but poor grammarians, it's a different picture. Spell-check gives them an array of choices; if they are deliberate and careful, they can make the right ones. Occasionally they make the wrong ones. As an example of this, I once had a student who wanted to talk about the fate of the crocodile; he spelled fate as fait, and Spell-check pressured him to change that to faith. To me, as the writing teacher, I had to work backwards from faith, and try to figure out what he was talking about; my job would have been easier had he simply left the misspelled fait in the slot.

I call this (for lack of a better term) the woods advice principle. When lost, don't pick a random direction to walk; just sit still and wait. This advice is based on the principle that you'll be harder to find if you wander off in a random direction, than if you had sat still where fate had put you to begin with.

We (writing teachers) can all come up with examples where students in effect did this; they gave us a word that gave us a chuckle, but in fact was harder to decipher than the simple misspelling would have been.

Now here comes the research question. Assuming that grammar-checkers are as pervasive, or becoming as pervasive, as spell-checkers were, say five years ago when I wrote the story, "Faith of the Crocodile." Assuming that virtually all of our students have one, probably at the computer of their choice, at the one they write their papers on, if not the one in the CESL lab, or the LMC, or the laptop they so weightlessly hook up to use wireless and print. Assuming this grammar-check routinely catches all their Subject-verb mismatches, so that we no longer see those; we still get mistakes, but they are mostly of a different kind, a kind that grammar-check cannot catch as easily.

But, does the lost-in-the-woods principle apply here? Are there cases where it is actually more difficult to interpret what a student means, by virtue of grammar-check having beat us to the pencil, and pushed the student down the wrong road? I'll guarantee that this principle applies. I'll guarantee that there are systematic differences in the writing that we read these days, as compared to what we read even a few years ago. I'll guarantee this because I'm a writing teacher, not because I could tell you, off hand, what they are. But I intend to find out.

I do not aim to remove grammar-checker from our computers; on the contrary. If they are part of modern life (like spell-check, and the computer itself), it is more to the point to teach students how to use them effectively (then, as I do with Spell-check, assume that they have it and understand it, and mark them down if they don't...if it's a working part of every writer's production system, then it becomes a ubiquitous part of the modern world, something to be understood, managed, talked about, mastered, etc. Yet, to my knowlege, people don't talk about it much. How do teachers know what this machine is doing under their noses? Why would a student bring up the fact that he/she has a hidden tech ally in the war to be smooth and fluent? This ally, presumably, will stay with him/her right through my class and into the next. This ally, presumably, has a mind of its own, and may not always give the perfect advice. This ally, therefore, must be managed, along with the keyboard, the printer, fonts, ink, paper, and a stapler.

Exactly my point. I don't know how my own car works, really, but if I can explain why my stack of papers looks different from the one I had a few years back, I'll be happy.

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At 6:11 PM, Blogger JMH said...

It seems like the grammar check would cripple first the voice, the natural if ungrammatical progression of thought.


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