Green Squiggly Lines:

Historical Contexts

In the MLA's volume Assessment of Writing (1996), Hunter Berland-a researcher for ETS-argued that "a certain amount of standardization, particularly in writing mechanics, is an essential part of writing and writing assessment" (p. 256). Berland criticized "humanities professionals" who "still fear the order, rules and standardization that computers, and science more generally require" (p. 256). While urging us to collapse the divisions between science and the humanities, Berland returned to Ellis Page's work (1968) on computer-evaluated writing and suggested that computer-based essay assessment had advanced greatly between 1968 and 1996. In 1996, it was time to turn over the "menial" aspects of reading, responding to, and evaluating student work to computers. Although these developments had been ignored by most writing teachers, computers, Berland argued, could examine-and examine quickly-a student essay in terms of standardized writing mechanics. "Computers," he claimed, "have no theoretical problems" with marking the formal features of a text correct or incorrect (p. 256); in fact, computers

are at least potentially better suited to dealing with [mechanics] than are English teachers. If computers were allowed to handle some of the more menial tasks of writing instruction, teachers would have more freedom to concentrate on the more important aspects. A political stance that denies the importance of writing mechanics and resists all forms of technology and science is not good for writing instruction. (p. 256)

Berland fixated on mechanics and the computer's ability to recognize formal deviations from standard usage, and his essay served to reify the distinction that he condemns-computers examine the minutiae of writing, the mechanics, while writing teachers look at themes, at broad-based content development. The problem with Berland's division is that it perpetuates the distinction between form and content, between the subtle arrangement of students' words in sentences and their larger, "more important" developmental goals.