Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Human Isolation Disease is Spreading

by Haley Boston, student blogger, Northwestern University Class of 2016

Picture this: a computer grades a commentary about the severe lack of personal connection in the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Ironic, isn’t it?  

I have read countless articles detailing the new generation’s lack of “human connection” due to a plethora of advances in social technologies. Some of my friends are better acquainted through Twitter than face-to-face; in fact, they shy away from physical confrontation, worried that their real appearances won’t amount to their online, text-edited personalities. The popular means of communication these days give us the illusion of complete connection when we are really more isolated. Isn’t the new editing software, as detailed in this New York Times article, another step in that direction? Parents reprimand their teens for texting during family dinners. We are scolded for using Facebook while writing an essay. We spend hours discussing literature in an English class, yet our teachers run our carefully constructed essays through a machine that spits out this amount of A’s, and that amount of B’s? 

Teachers are human. Even when they grade papers, they have biases. Person A always writes coherent sentences, speaks up in class, and reads the text, so Person A must have delivered a wonderful college-level essay. There is also the comparative bias, when two students write essays on the same topic and Student A’s essay was relatively more concise than Student B’s. True, these are issues that a machine-editor could avoid. However, it seems as if eliminating yet another human contact in our young, impressionable lives is not worth the efficiency. A machine cannot read the emotional toll a personal narrative has on the reader. A machine cannot be truly persuaded based on the arguments made in a typical SAT essay. 

As an aspiring writer and recent graduate from Oregon’s most prestigious public high school, I have benefited from the relationships I established with my English teachers. My Junior IB English teacher had a way about grading essays. He’d say that the essay should take him on a journey, that he should be able to follow a seamless path through the essay, and if he hit a tree along the way, it was an automatic C. His description taught me that editing is a process. Every English teacher has a different grading style, and each year I had to adjust my analytical approach to satisfy those styles. This helped me become a better adaptive writer. Imagine that you, a sixth-grader, are taught that “good essays” always have complex sentences, five paragraphs, and are organized by literary technique. You figure this formula out in middle school and it works in high school as well, because your teachers don’t read your essays, they are just tossed into cyberspace to be graded by a data-processing robot. What will you do when you get to college and Professor X wants a seven-paragraph comparison essay organized by idea, not technique? 

I was recently able to identify the extent to which English students are programmed. I tried to do something different with my essays, to add a creative twist at the risk of receiving an 89% on an analytical essay because it was “too complicated.” So I tried again. I was given an 89% on a commentary that was “too simple.” Would I have received a higher grade if a computer edited my essay instead? Would it have recognized that it is sometimes O.K. to split a thesis statement into multiple sentences? 

From what I have witnessed these past few years, most English teachers prepare engaging class discussions with their own thoughts on literature. In a way, I think the analytical essay is meant to demonstrate the worth of the class discussion. It is, in part, a thank-you-nod to the teacher. Robotic editing eliminates the student-teacher relationship. For a student like myself, it would subsequently eliminate motivation (I like to try and impress my teachers). Without motivation, without this ominous “human connection,” where are we now?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Teenagers Abusing Stimulants to Gain an Academic Edge

I belong to several college counseling trade organizations and chat frequently with colleagues from around the world. I often comment that I feel fortunate to be in Portland, Oregon, where the stress level and competitiveness related to college admissions seems to be less intense than on the east coast and in California. Yes, we have amazingly talented and aspirational students in Oregon, but I rarely experience any cut-throat attitudes from my students or find parents placing huge pressure on students regarding prestigious colleges. Most parents and students I work with simply want to find a great college that is an academic, social, emotional, cultural and spiritual match--whether that be a small liberal arts college, a large research university, a highly selective Ivy League school, a college that balances academics and faith, or a performing arts conservatory.

I was quite shaken this morning upon reading a NY Times article about teenagers abusing prescription stimulants in seeking an academic edge. I naively want to think that this doesn't happen here in Portland, but I realize that it does. This raises a moral question for me. Am I inadvertently contributing to pressure that encourages students to choose risky behavior in order to please significant adults or reach an end goal (higher test scores, prestigious college admissions)? I hope not, yet I realize that what I say to students may be heard and interpreted in ways I do not intend. 

My college coaching practice emphasizes lowering the stress of an inherently stressful process. This is achieved through a broad range of tactics, some of which include demystifying the application process, spreading out the tasks over a long period of time, encouraging students to explore their interests and potential careers through job shadows and internships, and increasing writing skills (which helps in college as much as it does for writing college application essays). Still, does that fact that a student's family is investing in college counseling send a message to that student that the outcome is what counts most?

How does a family measure the success of working with a college counselor? Ideally, that success is evident years later after the student has successfully become independent, made life-long friends, graduated from her chosen university, found meaningful work she is equipped to do, and become a person that  parents admire for her values and actions. I hope that success is not being measured by the number of high profile colleges the student was admitted to, and I sincerely hope that students don't resort to drugs to "help" them along the way.