I’m Sorry, Dave. I’m Afraid I Can’t Give You That “A.”


So my students are working on compare/contrast essays right now. What I’m asking them to do is freaking difficult: find two articles related to their [self-selected] research topic that address the same issue and craft a four-page compare/contrast essay in which they put the two pieces into conversation with each other.

The research part, as usual, is what’s kicked many of them in the ass. And that’s as it should be. Research is HARD. Ok, doing research that uncovers material you can actually use is hard; finding irrelevant crap is easy.

What’s struck me this time is how many students are obsessed with avoiding “bias.” For them, though, “bias” seems to mean having any sort of opinion at all, which, as I try to explain to them, is not humanly possible. There’s a difference, I say, I preach, I suggest, between expressing an uninformed opinion that’s not based on any sort of evidence and in asserting a position in such a way as to ignore any other takes on that issue. In selecting data, in conducting a close reading, in analyzing a text, I tell them, you ARE taking a stance, presenting an argument, but that doesn’t mean that you are biased.

I guess I’m wondering: where does this idea come from, this notion that bias is bad, that “unbiased” is a legitimate and desirable state of being? I’m reminded of a comment that Mike W. Barr made in one of his letter columns in his comic, The Outsiders: “A writer who doesn’t have opinons isn’t writing stories, he’s making pablum” ( The Outsiders 4,  Feb., 1986).

Now, granted, Outsiders is a comic and not a newspaper article or research paper, but Barr’s point cuts to the heart of the issue here: writing is done by people. Period. Not by HAL 9000 or Gerty or Jarvis, but by people. Articles like this one, coupled with my students’ attitude towards bias, suggest that there’s a real desire among some in our society to eliminate the tempramental human from the act of writing. To flatten and silence and eliminate all the noise from “academic” texts, all in the name of the great Straw Man: clarity.

Which is complete and utter bollocks.

But it may explain why there’s a market for a computer program that can grade–not assess, or comment on, or respond to, but grade–writing, especially student writing, which is, in my experience, often the most messily and awesomely human of them all.

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