Green Squiggly Lines:

Writing Assessment in Computer-Mediated Composition

In 1977 Patrick J. Finn had argued that the evaluation of a student essay was well beyond the mechanical reach of the computer. While some researchers believed "that the computer can, and someday will, replace human evaluators and do a better job of evaluating writing," Finn was certain that "a computer cannot evaluate themes" (p. 69). However, Finn did see a use for computer technologies in the writing classroom. He advocated for the computer as a tool

to isolate, analyze, and organize one component of writing, word choices, in order to respond to that component more consciously, more intelligently, and with heightened sensitivity. (p. 88)

For Finn, if the computer was used as a lexical analyzer and not the final evaluator of student essays, it could function as a useful pedagogical tool. At the other end of a decade plus of work on computer-based text analysis and word processing programs, Geoffrey Sirc (1989) echoed and refined Finn's view of the computer as a tool or medium to be used in a writing course. In "Response in the Electronic Medium," Sirc argued

that whenever we have our machines talking directly to students (through preprogrammed words or phrases activated by some sort of textual input) in the hope of providing useful writing instruction, we limit our pedagogy. (p. 187)

"The computer," he suggested, "so far, can only serve effectively, in terms of a general pedagogical tool, as a medium for response rather than as a respondent" (p. 187). By highlighting the computer's role as tool or medium and reserving the role of evaluator for the teacher Finn and Sirc staked out the territory of the writing teacher against what appeared to be the encroaching reach of the computer as grading machine and the educational technologists who design these software packages.