4Cs Keynote: Who Owns Writing? Part 1

I wasn’t able to ask Doug Hesse for his permission to blog his keynote, but John Lovas knows Doug, so I’ll ask John if he might put me in touch with Doug in order to seek that permission. This entry, then, is posted provisionally, and may be taken down. Any errors and misrepresentations are entirely my own; the eloquence and insight and originality is all Doug’s. I know I won’t be able to entirely do it justice, but I’ll do my best to at least capture some of the progression of ideas and imitate what I can of the style. In that sense, this post is entirely a derivative work.

Doug Hesse begins his Thursday morning keynote address in song; a clear, rich voice singing a stanza from the Marian Anderson spiritual:

My lord what a morning
When the stars begin to fall

He sings beautifully. His first question, accompanied by a PowerPoint slide of the cover of The Album of Negro Spirituals: “Did I have a right to sing from that book?” The contradictory state of Writing today, Doug suggests, might well be characterized by Anderson’s strange couplet: the praise of the first line, the “pretty apocalypse” of the last.

As writing, rhetoric and composition is doing well, but it’s also in danger. Hence Doug’s question, Who owns writing? Ownership, Doug points out, comprises both control and responsibility. He isn’t talking so much about the ownership of individual texts, he notes, but rather about owning the material conditions of writing; its circumstances and pedagogies within (and without?) higher education. Who speaks for writing? Certainly, we know many who would control writing, but are they the same ones who would take responsibility for it — and what might be the various inflections and appearances of that responsibility? What should our discipline aspire to own, and how?


Doug and his friends and colleagues, he says, sometimes play a game they call “Beat the Digital Grader.” They go to Pearson’s Intelligent Essay Assessor site and run the demo, trying to write the worst possible essay for the best possible grade. It’s a perfectly reasonable response to a writing teacher’s fear of technology-imposed obselescence, of course: think of the historical example of Detroit auto workers’ reactions to the presence of robots on the assembly line. What might happen to teachers in the information economy’s environment of increasingly automated efficiencies? And Doug offers a counter-question: what might happen if machines like Pearson’s free teachers to teach rather than judge?

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
Richard Brautigan

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

Doug worries that machines might subordinate the what and the why of writing to the how of writing: writing as technique, knack, dull game. He describes a variant of “Beat the Digital Grader” wherein he takes the Intelligent Essay Assessor’s topic of “aphasia” and types it into the Essay Generator’s topic box. The Essay Generator generates an essay on aphasia. Doug submits the aphasia essay to the Intelligent Essay Assessor. It returns the scores: ten out of ten overall, ten out of ten on content, ten out of ten on style; seven out of ten on mechanics. If we are to close the machine circuit of knowledge production and exclude humans from the ideally efficient writing process, we need only improve the grammar, spelling, and punctuation of our machines. Doug cites the 2004 report (354k PDF) of The National Commission on Writing and its privileging of writing for economic ends, its privileging of writing as preparation for work, and notes the Commission’s fondness for technological modes of evaluation and technological remedies for surface error. None of this, Hesse contends, intersects in any productive way with the CCCC Position Statement on Teaching, Learning, and Assessing Writing in Digital Environments.

Doug sings, beautifully, again:

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long way from home

Writing, Doug argues, has too often served as a scapegoat for failed economic productivity, and asks if we — CCCC — can say together, “This is what writing is, and this is why it matters.”

(More tomorrow.)

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