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The Doogie Howser Problem

I had a delightful student last semester. Fourteen, dual-enrolled in high school and community college, smart, charming, and interesting. She wanted to be there and did everything assigned. Dream student, right?

The problem was this student’s writing. She technically completed the requirements, but something was off. Her arguments were shallow, or rather lacking depth. Shallow implies a negative, but here the issue was simply a lack of life experience. A 14-year-old doesn’t yet have a lot of personal examples on which to draw or a familiarity with complexity. So while she could write proficiently by many measures, the critical-thinking element was off.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to assess student writing. Computer programs that say they can do it are a lot like my young pupil: able to do the technical stuff, but missing the most important elements. I love the idea of streamlining essay grading as much as the next person, but I have no interest in outsourcing this tedious part of my job to any entity that will measure low-order concerns above real thought.

Writing is important because of how we express ourselves, take in information, and reprocess it. Do all the papers I grade have deep insights into the human condition? Certainly not. But the moments of clear thinking that come along are worth slogging through a whole lot of awkward sentence construction and bad verb usage.

To those readers who work in the humanities, I ask: Have you struggled with young students’ essays as well?

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