A reader wrote in with a thoughtful response to the question of how to structure classes in light of ChatGPT and its variants:
The main attitude here seems to be that academic essay assignments serve the greater good by teaching students how to write documents in formal English. If, in this brave new world, students learn to use this new tool to help them put together documents in the appropriate style with the appropriate content, then we have done our jobs. If you get the right answer using a calculator instead of a slide rule, well, in your eventual engineering career you will have access to a calculator, so off you trot. Who knows? Maybe chat gpt really is taking over the world, and we should be teaching students how to use it effectively, just like we should be teaching them how to use calculators effectively, rather than insisting that they use slide rules. On the other hand, if students use this new tool and the results are bad, as in your vice presidents becoming presidents example, well, they didn't reach the goal of writing a paper with the appropriate content, did they? Either way, let's judge outcomes.
This seems to be the direction things are going, at least for the moment. It’s a variation on using canned tomatoes in “homemade” spaghetti sauce. A purist might object that one is building on something already produced, but one person’s sauce will be very different from another’s even if they use the same canned base. Similarly, someone using an AI-generated essay as an outline or a prompt might well take it in an entirely different direction, to say nothing of whether they bother fact-checking. As I taught my students, editing is a skill in itself.
On the other hand, that position may only be tenable while AI bots are still in the relatively crude, early phase. As they improve, they may get better at sounding human. As that happens, there may be less room for students (or others) to make the output their own. Some professors are already bringing back oral exams as ways to defeat write-o-matic devices. One history professor I know assigns her students to produce podcasts on given topics in lieu of a paper. She reports that they’re more fun to listen to and harder for students to fake.
I’m not a formal scholar of communications, but I’m fascinated by ever-more-complex technology pushing us consistently back toward the oral tradition. A hundred years from now, will formal writing be considered quaint? Perhaps a transitional technology that became irrelevant after the transition? I hope not—there’s something to be said for the sustained focus that writing both generates and demands—but the tendency is clear.
If that’s true, then one task for higher education might be to find ways to encourage deeper thinking other than through writing. Gamification leaps to mind, as do oral exams, projects, and debates. In the Socratic tradition, sustained oral questioning was considered the route to truth. That’s maddeningly hard to do well—witness the number of variations on “it is certainly so, Socrates” in the various Platonic dialogues—but when it works, it’s glorious.
As a fan of Susan Cain’s work, I’m compelled to note that writing as a medium is particularly suited to introverts. Introverts tend to prefer to mull things over before holding forth on them, and writing allows for that. Moving from a writing-centered culture back to one based on oral traditions may amplify the already-too-strong tendency in American culture toward rewarding bluster over substance. But if we can find other ways for smart introverts to make their contributions—and I’m sure that we can—we might be able to avoid inadvertently relegating some of our best minds to the margins.
Yes, of course, results matter. But the process of getting those results is supposed to be educative in itself. The point of assigning a paper isn’t the paper; it’s the struggle the student goes through in writing the paper. Take away the struggle, and you take away the point. Driving the length of a marathon is much easier than running it—I assume—but it isn’t quite the same thing.
Wise and worldly readers, have you found introvert-friendly ways to encourage more reflective participation beyond writing? I’d love to hear (via writing, ironically enough) via email at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com, on Twitter at @deandad or on Mastodon at @deandad at-sign masto (dot) ai.