The Essay—an endangered species?

Technology is at the gate! A recent opinion piece in the New York Times describes advances in computer-generated articles and what’s called “automated narrative generation.” Soon, computers will generate “human-sounding stories in whatever voice—from staid to sassy—befits the intended audience.” Indeed, many of the news services we read on the Web today are synthesized from databases, news feeds, and underlying advertising requirements. Behind the scenes, keywords and clicks are tracked, counted and eventually “monetized” as the advertising you see is tailored to your interests.

Imagine this: Some crafty education entrepreneur develops a suite of tools, distributed by a leading edu publisher or MOOC as add-on services for courseware. It’s not too far off; in fact, it’s already happening in rudimentary form. Several companies sell products and services today, and Phoenix University has been offering a primitive thesis generator for a few years.

I sometimes ask my students to test drive the Phoenix service as they develop their argumentative essays. Varying results. Most students find it clumsy but useful in helping to zero in on their theses. Although this generator is not quite ready for prime time, it offers a view into the future.

In a few years, our students will not be writing essays so much as designing them. No need to buy a canned essay, just generate a completely novel one tuned to your intentions!

So, what’s a writing instructor to do? One obvious approach is to ban computers and smartphones—in the style of an often recounted (some say misinterpreted) attempt by King Canute to stop the tides. But would we really want to deprive students of skills that most professions require today, offer them competitive workplace advantages, and enrich, for better or worse, their lives?

One story has it that England’s first king, a Dane named Canute, in an act of hubris, commanded the tides to stop. Photo source:
One story has it that England’s first king, a Dane named Canute, in an act of hubris, commanded the tides to stop.
Photo source:

I think we should embrace these new capabilities and provide students with the context and conceptual underpinnings to exploit them. Ultimately, it’ll be their choice to adopt these innovations for creative or professional purposes, and if we turn them off or inhibit them from learning these skills and tools, we deprive them of an important future path to follow. Our students need to find their places in this emerging digital world.

After all, only a few years ago, computer-assisted spell checkers were verboten in many English classes! One approach to consider is celebrating the adoption of automated writing tools and exploring their positive aspects as well as drawbacks. If you have used EasyBib or any of the other automated reference and citation tools, you know their utility and limitations. We should ask: Do their benefits outweigh their shortcomings? The arc of disruptive innovation has been well described by Clayton Christensen in The Innovator’s Dilemma—small incremental changes inevitably topple traditional practices if the new solution has compelling benefits—even if the changes are inferior to the status quo.

Today’s academic highly structured essay enables instructors to evaluate student insights, reasoning skills and communication competencies. An essay is a perfect structure for computer modelling—essays have a distinct schema that is easy to clone and “populate” with semantics and familiar grammar patterns. With access to mountains of data and powerful cloud computers, our handheld, networked devices will soon be better (that is, more conformant and information rich) at this game than what we humans can do. Is the essay, as an academic genre, soon to be eclipsed by robo-writers? Technology and digital information trends suggest a new wave of automation will hit our shores soon, and we’ll have to see if the student essay can withstand the digital onslaught.

So the next time you’re reading an exceptional student essay, staid or sassy, ask yourself: How can this essay be humanly better?