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Commentary: Computers and Creativity

By Gary Schindler

Buffalo, NY – No matter what the rationalization is, it's just wrong to have a computer program grade a students writing. But that's the way some in academia are headed.

According to a recent Associated Press article, the standardized business school admissions test, the GMAT, is graded by a computer program called "e-Rater." A sociology professor, Ed Brent of the University of Missouri-Columbia, used a National Science Foundation grant to produce what he has called SAGrade software. Professor Brent is quoted in the piece as saying, "We want to do the fun stuff, the challenging stuff. And the computer can do all the tedious stuff."

Interesting. Students use computers for writing papers. Sometimes they use a computer to buy an essay on-line, or steal one off the internet, or to do a really fast "cut and paste" from a number of web sources. I guess that like Professor Brent, the students want to skip the tedious stuff, and get to the fun stuff too.

If you think about it most of what is written is, on the grand scale of things, of pretty low quality.

Take this commentary for instance. I have no illusions. A lot of people could do a much better job than I. Truth be told, there are probably many computers that could do a better job.

My point is that what is important is that this commentary is the commentary I wrote, the commentary I created. Personally, I write to communicate, so people can read or hear my thoughts. I don't care what grade a computer might give it. Can the computer recognize the human touch of creativity or the insight of a novel thought?

How do we decide what is worth reading? If there are software programs for college level work, someone can certainly make a program to handle essays written by third graders. Just imagine the teachers being able to skip the tedious stuff. I doubt, however, that the computer will offer encouragement, make suggestion for improvement, or laugh at a wonderfully silly, joyous phrase. There is a needed relationship between teacher and student that would be lost.

Of course, there is the argument that at least the computer software will be "objective." We have all suffered at the hands of a battle ax educator who was never, ever fair, especially with our efforts.

We Americans tend to like speed and certainty. The winner of the 100 meter dash wins by one one-hundredth of a second. The valedictorian has a 99.57 average; the salutatorian's is only 99.55. Clear winners. Quickly determined.

Figure skating, the Academy Awards, poetry contests frustrate us because, well, because. Because it involves that which is not easily calculated, which speaks not to the clock or the tape measure but to our souls. What's next; computer graded art, music, poetry?

I believe that part of being a creature of God is that each of us has a divine spark. That spark can kindle creativity, and leads us to laugh, to draw, to inspire, to sing, to weave, to mold, to make.

Let's be human enough to cherish that gift of creativity, to put up with the tedious if need be, and to put our computers to better use than grading our efforts at being human.

Hmmm, I wonder what the computer would say about this little essay ... "YOU HAVE RECIEVED A SCORE OF ONE OUT OF SIX. PLEASE TRY AGAIN."

Oh well ....

Listener-Commentator Gary Schindler is pastor of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Springville.