The Writing Proficiency Exam is a Giant Milgram Experiment

The Writing Proficiency Exam is a Giant Milgram Experiment

A Star Wars Storm Trooper hunched over a table with the caption "I was just following orders"
Image: Psych Tutor

At CSU Long Beach, like many universities, students must take a Writing Proficiency Exam or “WPE” as a requirement for graduation. I’m one of the many faculty members who grade these exams, as I just did this morning.

We sign non-disclosure agreements that we won’t reveal the topics of these essays. Which is fine since I’m not today discussing any particular topic or any particular student essay. What I do want to discuss is my disappointment at how frequently a student writes the essay she’s told to, instead of questioning the essay prompt and its assumptions.

53 years ago Yale University Social Psychologist Stanley Milgram performed a series of experiments showing just how obedient we can be to authority figures. These experiments weren’t long after World War II and it’s hard not to consider them in the context of the horrors of the Third Reich. A 21st century CSU Long Beach student writing an essay can’t have any connection to these long ago experiments in obedience, can she?

Some essay prompts ask students to evaluate the relative virtues of A and B, and students dutifully do this. Sometimes they leave it at neutral tradeoffs, and sometimes they argue that A or B is ultimately better.

Other prompts ask students to consider and evaluate some scenario. It is these essays that trouble me the most. Why? Because 98% of the time students do what they’re told. I almost never read a paper that says I reject the premise as formulated in this question, or a paper that rejects the context, or a paper that asks the reader to zoom out and understand the given scenario in a wider context.

Like subjects in The Milgrim Experiment, our student writers do what they’re told. They write what we tell them to write. Perhaps they are wise to do this, it is called the Writing Proficiency Exam after all, not the Original Thinking Exam. Still, it troubles me that we set up pins in a given configuration, walk a given distance away from them, hand the student a ball, and ask them to knock down as many pins as possible while avoiding the gutters on either side.

Sure, avoiding the gutters and hitting lots of pins is great, in a given, narrow context. But is all of life about knocking down pins? Why not see how many gutters your ball can hop? Or figure out how many helium balloons it would take to float the ball across all the lanes? Or realize that those pins down the lane due East of you are actually irrelevant to your life, but that what’s in front of you when you face West is what you really want to be grappling with?

My cousin Mike is an artist. He’s worked in a zillion different media and does mostly metalwork today. In Three Rivers, CA, it’s almost impossible to find a home or business that doesn’t have some kind of metalwork by Mike. His eldest daughter Josi is some kind of genius. His youngest daughter Viv is a cyberspace nerd. Games. Chat. If she’s at your house, she’s probably on a device. Mike’s mom and my mom both complain about this all the time. The other day Mike & Viv went down to Alabama to visit their brother & uncle Mark. They got to play in a flight simulator that few of us civilians ever have access to. Mike, the visuospatial guy, did pretty well. Viv crushed it.

From one point of view, Viv had been wasting an awful lot of time. But from another point of view she was training herself with skills that the first POV didn’t even realize were valuable or might lead to a future career.

In The Milgram Experiment the authority that compelled obedience was an older guy in a white lab coat, and the context of the university setting. In the Writing Proficiency Exam the authority that compels obedience is the self-certainty of a paragraph on a piece of colored paper. And the context of the university setting. And the context of show us what you’re supposed to show us here so you can get one merit badge closer to whatever your future life is supposed to be.

Demonstrating that you can write a paragraph by restating the question and explaining whatever it asks you to explain does, I suppose, demonstrate that you can write a paragraph. But machines will be able to write passable paragraphs soon enough. For me, “Writing Proficiency” has to include critical and original thinking.

Milgram, Zimbardo, Asch, and so many other classic experiments show how great the pressure to conform is, and how obedient we can be. We might claim individuality or non-conformity through personal appearance or other aspects of identity, but are we non-conforming enough, do we care enough, to question the assumptions on a piece of paper?

As Joline Blais & Jon Ippolito note in their book At The Edge of Art, when an RL skater grinds down the steps of city hall in Dublin, she’s actually testing the rules of her society. When she similarly “breaks the rules” in Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4, her civic rule breaking is actually conforming to the expectations of the video game she’s playing.

I dream of reading original, fresh essays, where students zoom out from the given context, question assumptions, and come up with unique, individual, and compelling conclusions. That is proficient writing!

Comments? Questions? What great art did you see, make, or experience today?

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