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Computers that Grade Student Essays: Do They Recognize Dirty Jokes?

April 25, 2012


My computer with desk

When the computer grades my composition, is it looking to laugh, to cry, or just get the job done as soon as possible? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even when I was a student, I understood that I needed to write for my audience.  If I knew that a story was going to be read in front of the whole class, I made it funny.  If I knew that my over-sensitive English teacher was taking it home to read personally, I made up dead relative stories so she would cry (I was almost “fictionally” an orphan by the end of my ninth-grade year). 

But now that computers are starting to be used to grade student compositions, the whole writer-audience dynamic could change.  What does a computer want in a story, other than perfect grammar and sentence structure?  Does it want to be informed, entertained, or does it just want to be finished grading in three seconds? 

Do computers understand emotion in a story?  If I wrote about a (fictionally) dead relative, would the computer respond with a word of encouragement or instead inform me that it couldn’t find any records of my relative’s demise in the online obituaries?  

Would it understand humor?  If I wrote a dirty joke without using any forbidden language, would it give me a good grade or send me to the principal’s office? 

Here’s a kind of dirty joke presented as a possible current events story (from last summer) to use as a test run.  Would I get a passing grade for decent sentence structure, or would I get a week’s worth of detention?  When the computer told me the joke wasn’t funny, would it be because a computer has no sense of humor, or was it because the joke wasn’t funny? 

PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED IN Dysfunctional Literacy’s “Best Dirty Jokes Ever”!! 

IMF French Guy Gets Off 

One night during his house arrest, the ex-IMF French guy Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) finished showering and stepped out from his bathroom.  When he walked into his bedroom, he surprised his hot young maid, who was fluffing some pillows.  He leered at her.  She smiled at him. 

And a few hours later he was arrested again. 

A veteran police officer and a rookie were at the police station discussing the case and the prospects of the ex-IMF French guy going to prison. 

“The defense attorney said it’s an easy case,” the rookie said.  “The guy’s going to get off because when the maid told him to get off, he got off.” 

“That’s not what the prosecution thinks,” the veteran said.  “They said he won’t get off because when the maid told him to get off, he got off instead.” 

“Let me get this straight,” the rookie said.  “This guy might get off because he got off when the maid told him to get off, or he might not get off because he got off when the maid told him to get off.” 

“This is worse than ‘Who’s on First?’” said the veteran. 

“What are you talking about?” demanded the rookie. 

“You’ve never heard of ‘Who’s on First?’” the veteran asked, astonished at the lack of knowledge this young rookie had. 

“We already know who was on first,” the rookie said.  “We just don’t know how he got off.” 


Ugh.  I’m sorry about putting readers through that.  My point is that as a student, I never would have turned in a story like that to my human English teacher.  But if I knew that my human English teacher wasn’t going to read it, I might have taken my chances with the computer (I wouldn’t have written “DIRTY JOKE” at the top of the paper). 

To be honest, I was not the kind of student to turn in that kind of story to a computer, but I was the kind of student who could have talked a friend into doing it. 

All in the name of science, of course.

  1. *pfft* For Science, indeed. That was a good one.

  2. Asking the naive question here, “Are there really computers to grade comp. papers now? Or were you just making a point? 😉

    • Yes, there is computer software that grades (or helps teachers grade) student compositions. It’s supposedly better than English teachers at finding errors in grammar and sentence structure (which I believe), but it’s not as effective at grading content (which I also believe). I can imagine some English teachers (in a moment of lazy misjudgement) letting the computer grade a set of papers, and that’s where the student fun would begin.

  3. I am required by my department to use “grading software” and it takes me twice the amount of time to grade papers because I have to go back through all the comments and suggestions the computer has made and delete half of them. The other half need to be explained in better detail so the student understands what the mistake is and how to avoid it in the futre.

    Grading is difficult for me because I look at each individual student’s particular issues and consider their progress from paper to paper. When I have a student for whom English is a second language, I look at that student’s grammar mistakes differently than I do those of a native speaker. The student who is dyslexic has another set of challenges when it comes to writing. Computers can’t recognize that and make comments and suggestions that are targeted to help students in either group.

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