Recently, I was in a meeting with department chairs and administrators at my high school. We were discussing the agenda when the topic of ChatGPT elicited a collective groan. It had only been a few weeks into the semester, and we had already sent dozens of students’ names to administrators to report this new version of plagiarism. After discussing revisions to our existing policies, a colleague added, “We have to go back to old-school methods. It’s time for handwritten essays in class without devices. That’s the only way to get around this.”
I’ve heard the same sentiment echoed in other professional circles I follow, and I wince at the prospect every time. In these same conversations, I hear teachers eager to revert back to timed writing by hand, the five-paragraph essay, and other formulaic approaches to writing. While I understand their concern about the threat of ChatGPT, is this really how we create possibilities for our students to grow as writers? How can students thrive if we place even more restrictions on their already-clipped wings?
The Source of Teachers’ Concerns
Years ago, I learned about artificial intelligence (AI) assistance in student writing in an online forum for English teachers. We used to wring our hands about its ability to paraphrase work for students. When ChatGPT was released last November, the group’s concern quickly shifted to panic. Teachers tested prompt after prompt, and while the essays ChatGPT spit out weren’t exemplary, it was human enough for students to pass the work off as their own.
Like most hand-wringing, though, I suspect that teachers are not actually worried about students cheating or their jobs becoming obsolete; after all, cheating is nothing new. As we returned from winter break, knowing our students were armed with this information, we were more concerned about what might happen when our students no longer interacted with the skills developed in our courses.
My favorite moments are always when a student arrives to class breathless telling me they’ve scrapped an entire essay. “I was in the middle of research and realized I was completely wrong. Can I start over?” Or when they ask, “So if I’m writing to this senator, I have to actually find out what she thinks first, right?” Formulaic writing, especially tasks completed within the span of a class period, robs students of the opportunities to consider their audience and think strategically about their argument and voice. Like many teachers who grappled with ChatGPT, my initial concerns were that these moments would become another casualty of AI.
Pulling Back the Curtain
As publication after publication announced the end of my career and the discipline I love so dearly, I knew ChatGPT wasn’t just another round in the long game of whack-a-mole we play when it comes to preventing students from cheating. The more I played with the interface and read about ChatGPT’s less famous – but potentially more effective – cousins, the more I realized that my efforts to curb cheating would soon become futile.
So, I did what I usually do when I need to find hope for the future: I turned to my students. I prepared a few Socratic Seminars about their impressions of AI and its potential implications for the future of writing and education. Then, I pulled back the curtain, and we played with ChatGPT as a class for the first time.
I asked students to enter the same essay prompt they’d written back in October into ChatGPT, then compare their work to ChatGPT’s instant essay. They scored ChatGPT’s work using the same College Board rubric their essays were evaluated against. Once they were done scoring, the students determined that the computer was no match, confirming that it lacked the specificity, musicality and soul that their writing exhibits. Over the past year, we’ve been unlearning some of the restrictive practices of formulaic writing that students have been taught since elementary school. As it turns out, ChatGPT studied these same formulaic patterns, and the students picked up on them instantly.
“Look,” a student pointed out in one seminar. “It has nice transitions and everything, but it’s not saying anything.” Though I’m sure my students will still be tempted by the siren’s call of AI assistance to circumvent other assignments, I’m proud they have developed a discerning taste for writing that says something.
In a way, systems that favor formulaic writing have created this monster. ChatGPT learned from uninspired and methodical prose, and now students finally have a tool to fight back against the low bar set for them in the five-paragraph essay. This format has trained our students to write in standardized formats, and we shouldn’t be surprised that a robot has suddenly turned into one of our most consistent students.
What Matters More to Students
Since our first seminars about AI, we’ve returned to ChatGPT, whom I affectionately referred to as our “new student” in the classroom. Recently, we were reading a speech by Nikki Giovanni, and I wanted to practice a new way of approaching conclusion paragraphs. We asked it to write us a rhetorical analysis essay to work from so we could focus on our conclusions. They all balked at what it churned out. “That’s not even what she’s doing in her speech! It’s totally simplifying it!”
As we moved through these seminars, my students helped me realize I was focusing on the wrong tensions in the debate around ChatGPT. Instead, I was reminded how my students face pressure from multiple sources to chase the perfect resume, oftentimes to the detriment of their mental and physical health. It is not our careers and subjects on the line but rather our students’ relationship to writing and the lack of compelling and purposeful reasons we’re giving them to write in the first place. For students who have the weight of the world on their shoulders, why would they spend their limited time writing about which character is the tragic hero in a book they only pretended to read for class discussions? Why should students be excited to write when a specified number of sentences and paragraphs limits their voices?
This is not a call to abandon classic literature or rigorous expectations for writing. However, if students were able to explore the questions that matter to them in a format that best serves the writing goals they were empowered to establish, maybe they would be less tempted to outsource their writing to peers, essay mills and ChatGPT.
Focusing on Worthy Priorities
In my composition course, I often remind students that the test they prepare for at the end of the year is only the beginning of their writing journey. One day, they’ll be writing a speech for their best friend’s wedding, a eulogy for a loved one, a cover letter for a dream job or an introductory text on a dating app. Students deserve the opportunity to develop a sense of who they are as writers – how they generate ideas, which conditions are optimal for their ideas to flow and when it’s time to hit the delete button. If ChatGPT takes this opportunity from them, how will they ever have a chance to cultivate this skill and transfer it when it really matters?
As teachers grapple with the reality of ChatGPT becoming a permanent fixture in our students’ lives, it can be easy to lose sight of the larger goals that quality writing instruction aims to accomplish. However scared we may be, returning to old-school methods won’t solve the problem. Our students have valuable perspectives the world needs to hear. They deserve the opportunity to sharpen their voice and share their ideas with a broader audience, and they cannot do this if we place more limitations on their writing process.
ChatGPT offers us an opportunity to address our fears, release our fixation on preventing cheating and focus our attention on more worthy priorities: providing students with compelling reasons to write, inviting them to wrestle with important questions and crafting a piece of writing that cannot be mistaken for a robot’s work.