Slate just ran a story about ‘robo-readers’, services that provide automated feedback on students’ writing. Generally, I don’t like the encroachment of technology on the classroom (particularly in the humanities). There are some situations (courses with large numbers of students) where technology might help address problems, but I still hold that there is no replacement for face to face engagement with students. My teaching experience has been at smaller universities where this is possible, so I’ve been able to rely primarily on tutorials for giving students feedback.

The services discussed in the Slate piece seem worthwhile, however, for two reasons. First, students may be more likely to seek out feedback if it is not coming from a lecturer. Particularly if a student feels marginalised at university (for whatever reason), being able to turn to an impersonal service may make them feel more comfortable.

Second, even at a smaller university there is only so much time you can spend with any student. Whether I have half an hour or an hour with a student, I want to focus on the ideas at the centre of an essay. Helping students anticipate objections, examine concepts from other perspectives, seek out new resources – these are the key objectives of my tutorials. Going through grammatical problems not only takes time away from engaging in these important discussions, it can often leave students feeling discouraged. This discouragement than distracts them from our conversation about the main ideas of the essay. So, while effectively expressing your perspective is an important part of studying in the humanities, I usually discuss essay structure in person and leave the finer points of writing for written feedback. If a student’s writing is particularly poor I direct them to academic support or suggest that they spend extra time proofreading. Unfortunately, not all students find their way to academic support and students often don’t thoroughly read the feedback they receive on their work.

All that to say, it seems like these services could have some role to play as part of the undergraduate writing process.

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