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You Are What You Write

I woke up this morning to a news report that made me very sad and scared the daylights out of me at the same time. It wasn’t about Ukraine. It wasn’t about inflation. It wasn’t about gun violence. It wasn’t about donald trump.

It was about writing.

Ammaar Reshi was playing around with ChatGPT, an AI-powered chatbot from OpenAI, and, by the end of the weekend, he’d published a children’s book and started selling it on Amazon without ever picking up a pen and paper.

A couple of weeks ago, NPR did a story about this technology. The title was something like, ‘Are English Teachers an Endangered Species?’ or ‘Expendible?’ or ‘Irrelevant’” Whatever – they’re equally alarming. The report described AI programs that can churn out papers with just a prompt to, uh, prompt them.

The paper includes quotes and citations, word choices appropriate to the assignment level, and it is untraceable. That means that it cannot be tracked for plagiarism. It is completely original, its only iteration what a student holds in her grubby little hands. And the 20 other responses to the assignment that her classmates have generated are just as good – and just as original.

So what does this mean for the academy? Teaching writing is as exciting as watching paint dry, grass grow, and any other cliché we warn our students to avoid like the plague. They don’t like to write. They don’t want to write. They don’t know how to write.

I tell my students that we knew them before we met them when we read their application letters. That first impression doesn’t concern them. I tell them that they don’t have to write the great American novel (I’ll do that), but they can be competent writers. They don’t see the value in it. They communicate well enough through their texts, acronyms, and emojis. What they don’t understand or appreciate is that they need to write full sentences with grown-up vocabularies to compose a statement of purpose, a business plan, a thesis or dissertation. Or Marriage vows.

They tell me they have nothing to say. Well – if they expect a follow up to “Call me Ishmael” or “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times,” they don’t – but they have to value their thoughts and ideas and make their readers (me) value them as well.

Years ago, I gave an assignment to describe how they decorated their homes for Christmas. It was late in the semester, and I was tired. One student told me he couldn’t write the paper because his family hadn’t decorated their home since his dad died. I told him that was his first sentence. He wrote an A paper.

They are afraid of their grammar and spelling errors, as well they should be. These skills haven’t been taught in years, and English is a difficult, illogical, frustrating language for Americans, let alone non-native speakers. They ignore the red squiggly lines that warn them of spelling mistakes and don’t check to make sure that they’ve used the correct their/there/they’re in their sentences. They don’t monitor the difference between ‘apart’ and ‘a part’ or ‘compliment’ and ‘complement’. Those mistakes make for some interesting reading.
They think that good writing means using big words – words they can’t pronounce or would never speak to another human being. A student wrote me an email explaining why her assignment was incomplete. Apparently her dog had taken ill, and she’d spent the evening at the vet’s office, so she couldn’t ‘consummate’ her homework. I’m still laughing about that one.

If the rules aren’t bad enough, the way we actually use – or abuse – the language adds to their frustration. A student announced to her friends and me, “I literally died when I took that philosophy exam.” No, sweetie. You may have felt like dying, but you didn’t ‘literally’ die. “I could care less about writing.” Well then, I guess you do care – even a little. There’s a chapter in the book I plan to write dedicated to these errors.

Students who have trouble writing for whatever reason – apathy, second-language issues, procrastination – often plagiarize to get the assignment done. We know the ethical issues and academic penalties associated with this behavior. Before ChatGPT, we could Google or use Turnitin to confirm suspect papers. Then we sat and talked with students about the ramifications of their actions and addressed the factors that drove them to this conduct in the first place.

ChatGPT removes that option and obviates any sense of responsibility on the part of the student writer. But more than personal ethics is lost. Creativity, self-expression, authenticity – qualities we encourage and nurture in our students – are sacrificed to the efficiency of a chatbot.
Is it worth it?

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