The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Overcoming Built-In Prejudices in Proofreading Apps

by Ann Gillian Chu

As I am typing away in Microsoft Word, the glaring, red squiggly underline inevitably pops up, bringing up all the insecurities I have with academic English writing, as an ethnically Chinese, bilingual Chinese-English speaker. So what if I speak English with a North American accent? So what if English has been my medium of instruction for my entire life? So what if I graduated with a Master of Arts with honours in English Language from the University of Edinburgh? My fluency in Chinese somehow discredits my English fluency, as if I cannot be equally competent in both. Because I am not white, my English will always somehow be inadequate.

The way others, and I, perceive my English ability reflects how ‘standard English’ as an idea is toxic to the identity-building of those who are not middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual, white men from the Anglophone world. April Baker-Bell talks about the concept of linguistic justice, arguing that promoting a type of ‘correct English’ has inherent white linguistic supremacy. Traditional approaches to language education do not account for the emotional harm, internalised linguistic racism, or the consequences these approaches have on the sense of self and identity of non-white students. Extending Baker-Bell’s theory, how would this apply to the use of proofreading apps?

Apps are created by people who have their own underlying assumptions and worldviews, even if these assumptions are not explicitly written in any of the apps’ documentation. When using these tools, users need to have a sense of the kind of assumptions these apps carry into their corrections. More importantly, as programmes are written by people and applied in a formulaic way, they should not have the power to define their users’ sense of identity, or even their ability to communicate in English. Algorithm-based tools will always fall short in understanding the nuances and eccentricities that make human writing exciting and intriguing. The app should not have authority over its users, and its feedback should never be taken uncritically.

However, proofreading apps could be used as a pedagogical tool when thoughtfully and critically engaged. Evija Trofimova created a resource titled ‘Digital Writing Tools: Spelling, Grammar and Style Checkers,’ which investigates how different proofreading apps can or should be used. Trofimova’s project assesses how each app can be used for best didactic experiences, with exercise suggestions and classroom activities available for users to begin to see these proofreading apps as a possible pedagogical tool, rather than law enforcement of sorts. Users of proofreading apps should always treat each ‘error’ as a learning opportunity, investigate the rule behind the correction, and actively consider whether it is indeed a correction they want to take up in their writing. If a correction is unexpected, users should be encouraged to investigate why the app suggested it and what is the underlying principle. Crucially, app users need to have a sense of where to draw the fine line between what is conventional (rather than right) and what makes writing comprehensible to readers, and what expresses the unique voice and identity of a writer. Writers should explore more ways to communicate within and outside of conventions, in a way that best represents them. This sort of creativity will go beyond simply relying on the algorithm of a proofreading app.

It needs to be said more often that English as an academic lingua franca is no one’s first language (see Marion Heron and Doris Dippold, Meaningful Teaching Interaction at the Internationalised University). Just because someone is a monolingual English speaker does not necessarily mean that they are good at academic English writing. Just because someone writes in an unexpected or unconventional way does not necessarily mean that they are wrong. An essential purpose of writing is to communicate. As academics, we need to ask ourselves, how much can someone deviate from a standard and still be comprehensible? How much room can we leave to allow students to be themselves and express themselves fully in their writing? How much are proofreading apps stifling their ability to flourish as writers? We are not teaching students to become machines. There is no point in having different students write the same essay in the exact same way. Rather, it is precisely their unique and different voices that should be celebrated.

In ‘The Danger of a Single Story,’ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about her childhood in Nigeria, reading books about white, blue-eyed characters who played in the snow, ate apples, and talked a lot about the weather, which does not reflect her experience of the world at all. Growing up, Adichie struggled with characters in novels being made up of white foreigners from the West alone, as if the Western world is a cultural ground zero. She and other Nigerians are not represented in the literary works she read. Non-white proofreading app users may easily fall into the same impressionable and vulnerable position as Adichie did. These prescriptive ‘corrections’ made by proofreading apps, just like the children stories that Adichie read, implies an ideological position that a specific language standard, such as standard British or American English, is somehow superior and ‘correct.’ However, the West is not a cultural ground zero, nor is English a neutral medium of communication. Other varieties of English used in non-Western worlds, far from being inappropriate or incorrect, should be celebrated for their ability to reflect the culture and experiences of non-Western writers. The attempt to make a piece of written work meet certain linguistic standards should not be above rhetoric, creativity, and cultural expression.

What makes proofreading apps dangerous is that their underlying assumptions remain invisible to their users. A ‘correct’ grammar may reinforce existing biases in our society, creating linguistic violence, persecution, dehumanisation, and marginalisation, which non-standard English speakers endure when using their own language in schools and everyday life. One thing that stuck with me the most from my undergraduate degree is that proper English changes throughout the ages. What is now deemed suitable was once upon a time a deviant use of the language. And what is deviant now may become mainstream in the future. People have always reacted badly to these linguistic changes, but the changes in usage stick nonetheless. As users of proofreading apps and teachers of students who use these apps, it is important to encourage everyone to think about who the apps were built for and what purposes they were meant to serve. What spelling and grammatical rules do they enforce, and why? In After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, Willie James Jennings pushes against (theological) education that is ultimately set up for white self-sufficient masculinity, a way of organising life around a persona that distorts authentic identity. This way of being in the world forms cognitive and affective structures that seduce people into its habitation and its meaning-making. When a white Anglophone world is presumed as a norm, and others somehow have to cater to its expectations, it strangles intellectual pursuits from the perspectives of the other. It is the freedom of expression between interlocutors that will create a space for students from all backgrounds to flourish.

Ann Gillian Chu (FHEA) is a PhD (Divinity) candidate at the University of St Andrews. She has taught in higher education contexts in Britain, Canada, and China using a variety of platforms and education tools. As an ethnically Chinese woman who grew up in Hong Kong, Gillian is interested in efforts to decolonise academia, such as exploring ways to make academic conferences more inclusive.