Any Idea upon which We Can Ride.

Outlining a “pragmaticist” orientation towards truth, William James implies the importance of narrative devices in the construction of knowledge, where ideas are valuable in so much as they continue to lead us back to our experience; truths appear intermittently as “any idea upon which we can ride . . . any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor” (Pragmatism, 26-27) .

Pragmaticist “truth”, of course, must emphasize its instrumental aspects, leaving the essence of things to experience. All good scientists likely agree – then, in James’s time, as much as in the present day. Suffice to say here that a lack of essence in the narratives we build (or simply use) to explain and convey emergent ideas does not render such tools valueless. In fact, they remain – these narratives, these simplifications, these satisfying links – all that keeps us from silence. Essence can’t be measured, a pramaticist will tell us; truth can’t really be talked about in any meaningful way. But narrative can.

This is some of the intellectual context behind my recent presentation at the 4th International Conference on Writing Research on a panel organised by Norbert Elliot of NJIT and featuring Les Perelman (MIT), Chaitanya Ramineni and Paul Deane of Educational Testing Services. The issue at hand concerns the ongoing technological and pedagogical development of automated grading software, but more broadly speaks to our own increasingly complex relationship as writers to digital semantic technologies. I continue to use them more and more in both my class instruction and my critical work – to say nothing of their growing importance in helping me navigate the text that is my everyday life. Oddly enough, as with many writers using programmable writing tools, the allure was initially a creative one. Text generators and animated writing software appeared first as exciting tools to use to write new forms of poetry.

An article reviewing the panel can be found here in Inside Higher Education. It was reprinted in USA Today the following day.

Bill Tucker adds his comments in his article “Can Computers Assess Writing?”

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