April 24, 2009

Typing the blues

Professors should allow students to trade in Blue Books for computers

We are now at the end of spring quarter’s fourth week, which means only a few things: The weather isn’t fulfilling its seasonal duties, your state-school friends are about a week away from summer vacation, and midterm season has begun at the U of C.

For the science-challenged population of the school, these exams mean spending the entirety of a class period fighting off metacarpal cramps in an effort to dictate a few short-answer essays into a 16-page, wide-ruled medium of misery: the Blue Book.

I have one question: Why are we still making students use these things instead of doing them on computers?

Aside from the environmental impact, cost, and the sheer inconvenience of writing out a five-paragraph response by hand, a handwritten essay is not a particularly accurate or relevant evaluative measure.

This is the case, firstly, because of the handwritten essay’s reliance on, well, handwriting. My penmanship has been compared to that of a tired seven-year-old, and personally, I’ve always felt that my grades on written assignments were discernibly lower than those that were typed. I’d always guessed that there was some bias at play there, if nothing more than anger from having to read something so aesthetically appalling.

Turns out, there probably is. In a 1980 study, researcher Dennis Briggs asked 125 high school and college English teachers to each grade five essays of varying ability levels on the topic of uniforms in schools. Briggs had the essays copied in various handwriting styles, and assigned each teacher a packet of five essays (handwriting randomly chosen) to grade. The results showed that the quality of the handwriting was as—if not more—important than the deemed quality of the ideas within the essay.

I think I speak for all students when I say that I would prefer my work be graded on the value and clarity of the ideas presented, and not the habits developed in my second-grade grammar class. As a lefty, I can’t help but feel like a victim to some combination of genetics, improper instruction, and biased teaching materials, given my race’s infamousness for “the hook”—and the demented handwriting it produces.

That being said, I’ll stop short of invoking the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. There is a more reasonable rationale to move from Blue Books to the more modern advent of the computer.

We live in an age when influence is inescapable. Nearly every important document we produce is done with the assistance of a computer—college essays, grant proposals, cover letters, scientific papers, Maroon editorials—all the important things in life are typed out. We are accustomed to having spell check, to being able to easily delete words and sentences sans Wite-Out. We are so used to these things that they pervade our thought process while writing.

When I write, I move sentences around, play with mini-outlines, and delete a lot, and I’m sure many of you do as well. It is a privilege we will be afforded for every term paper we write, every big memo we draft at the office, and every novel we get 20 pages into before quitting (really, finish it). This luxury, however, is not available when you are asked to organize your thoughts on a midterm or final.

Nearly everything in the world beyond college exists within the lines of word processors, so why should our collective preparatory, and in many cases evaluative, experience be partially based on a measure that strays so far from that? If we’re going to keep archaic traditions, why not demand all exams be written exclusively in cursive?

Professors should give students the option of either handwriting or typing out in-class essays. It would make exams easier for teachers to read and grade, eliminate any contentions of bias, and be more in tune with the ways modern students think.

The foreseeable drawback is that teachers aren’t always comfortable with technology, and worries about mid-exam crashes would have to be alleviated or mitigated through automatic saving. Additionally, academic integrity is an obvious issue, given the interrelation between computers and Al Gore’s Internet.

What we really need is a program that can basically serve in a Wordpad capacity, yet be able to lock out the Internet. And we need it available in classrooms.

Oh wait––we already have that program. It’s in many of NSIT’s computer-based classrooms. If that were incorporated into Chalk, all our problems would be solved. Or, should that fail, students could be directed to these rooms on the day of the test.

Regardless, allowing students to use Word during tests isn’t a huge risk. Teachers could simply sit at the back of the classroom, allowing them to monitor any suspicious activity with roughly the same amount of effort it currently takes to ensure that football player isn’t jacking answers from the girl with bifocals to his right.

It’s time for us as a university to follow what our law school already does: get in line with many others around the country, and accept the fact that typing is really just another way of writing. The infrastructure is there: Give students the choice, and let’s ditch those stupid blue booklets.

Steve Saltarelli is a third-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society. He is an Associate Sports Editor.