Saturday, July 8, 2006

Macrorie, Uptaught

*Macrorie, Ken. Uptaught. 1970. Innovators in Education Ser. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook, 1996.

Macrorie's Uptaught is a humorous, hard-edged critique of tendencies in formal education toward prescriptive, overdetermined, and algorithmic writing events. True to his expressivist orientations, Macrorie emphasizes freedom (an almost Elbovian "Life is long; school is short" strain), freewriting, voice and their antitheses: oppression, constraint and stale discourses of schooling. I'm most interested in Macrorie's treatment of a computer system, Percival, as a trope for all that's wrong with education. The villainous computer system is used to score essays based on textual features, and this scenario functions rather like a set of bookends holding together the middle of his critique. Algorithmic text analysis is emblematic of all that's wrong with the institutionalization of writing in college. He boldly criticizes such projects (and associated thinking), but this also comes off as a critique of technology.

"They figured the theme graded by a teacher would carry a large number of these characteristics: a variety of sentence structures, frequent long sentences (with dependent clauses and other clearly realized relationships), a title (many papers did not carry titles), frequent paragraphing, few apostrophes, few spelling errors, many connective words, many commas and parentheses marks. The computer could read the papers for these mechanical traits" (4). Here, Macrorie lists the traits the computer system could identify, and he's right: it could. But he doesn't inquire into the possible benefits or uses or computationally assisted reading because it is the enemy. The mechanistic association, to be fair, is convenient to his larger set of proclamations about the dire state of college-level writing instruction.

"It was not nice to look at Johnny's carefully prepared dead body of a theme, cleaned of all the dirt of the street and the lines of experience around the eyes, inflated with abstract, pedantic words, depersonalized with pseudo-objective phrases that rendered it like every other corpse submitted to the teacher" (7). This connects with a couple of issues: Phelps in "Domain of Composition" on natural attitude, the idea of circulation in composition as "submitting" a paper (or corpse!), and the general displeasure in it all--for everyone involved.

Notably, Uptaught is part of an "innovators" series. And this brings up questions about what's involved with being an innovator. What does it mean, in other words, to be an innovator in composition and rhetoric, and who are our innovators now? On what grounds?

"This dehydrated manner of producing writing that is never read is the contribution of the English teacher to the total university. I know. For seventeen years I talked and responded like Percival. Then something happened in my class that showed me I had been an automaton sending out subtle messages I was unaware of. The students read them well: they were to become automatons too" (8). This, another illustration of Macrorie's complaint with automaton teaching and learning.

Related sources:
Page, E. B. & Paulus, D. H. (1968). The analysis of essays by computer. Washington, D. C: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Office of Education, Bureau of Research.
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