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College-level writing instructors across the country are inevitably grappling with the challenge to instruction presented by generative artificial intelligence and large-language models. While many instructors worry about students using these programs, such as ChatGPT, to generate ready-made essays, others are taking a longer view, asking themselves what they value most in the teaching of writing and how those values might best orient our understanding and use of text-generative AI.

As I have reflected on these programs, within the context of my thirty-plus-year career of teaching writing, I have turned back to the position statement on “Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” adopted by the Conference on College Composition and Communication in 1974. That statement affirmed that students come to us from many different language backgrounds and that all of those backgrounds have validity and importance. So-called “non-standard” uses of English are not “inferior,” but instead represent cultural and communal forms of meaning making. As the statement puts it, “The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another.”

This statement was produced during a time when colleges and universities were seeing a significant increase in applications from first-generation students (not unlike our own time) and debates were surfacing about their “preparedness” and the need to teach these new students a “standard” form of English. Written in light of debates at the time around Ebonics and Black Vernacular English the statement asserts, “A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.”

You may be wondering why I have returned to this nearly fifty-year old statement when thinking about generative AI. My reason is simple, really: while many on my campus have been praising the capacity of generative AI to produce “readable” and grammatically correct English, I have been concerned, frankly, about the blandness of the prose produced, and how it offers some enthusiasts the opportunity to laud the standardization of English as opposed to delighting in and learning from the plurality of Englishes in our world. More particularly, as a writing teacher, I want my students to experience the fullest possible range of both critical and creative use of the language as possible. Sure, students need to be prepared to produce effective written documents that communicate accurately, efficiently and with rhetorical awareness. But such training constitutes only a fraction of the creative use of language, in speech and writing, that students should experience.

I have developed this view through my own experience and research, most notably my work with colleagues from the University of California campuses at Davis and Santa Barbara as part of the Wayfinding Project, which surveys and interviews UC alumni about their “writing lives” three to ten years after graduation. Our work suggests that our writing programs are preparing students to move successfully as writers into the working world, but many of these same students claim to miss writing more creatively. They express nostalgia for the opportunities they had to sit with a piece of writing, even a long research project, and use their writing to reflect and explore. Many talk about wanting to find more time to pursue different kinds of writing. One alum has been writing a novel for several years, a work that meditates on American racism. Another reflects on the importance of blogging as a way not just to communicate with friends and family but to reflect on losses and life changes. Several talk about writing stand-up comedy routines as a way both to engage wordplay and critical commentary on the world around them.

All of these experiences (and there are many more I could offer) suggest to me that students’ experiences of writing while they are on campus should be as rich and robust as possible. They carry those experiences not just into the workforce but into their personal and civic lives. The delight in language, and particularly in writing, is an experience all of our students should have—even when they experience it at times as difficult, even frustrating. Indeed, some of the surprising moments in our research have been when alumni have discussed how they really disliked writing that research paper at the time, but now miss the experience for what it taught them about writing—not just as a form of communication, but as a way of thinking.

As I have reflected on this research and my own engagement with generative AI, I keep thinking about the values and practices that I—and many others in my field—have been developing about writing. While not everyone would agree or articulate these values and this understanding of writing in the way I do, I believe the following expresses what many of us have come to understand as important knowledge about what writing is, what it can do, and why it is important that we teach our students to write for themselves.

First and foremost, writing is not only (and perhaps not even primarily) a form of communication; it is also one of our most powerful and widespread tools for enabling complex thinking and one of the most powerful—and embodied—sites of interconnection between self and other, the individual and the community. Writing, as it vectors the languages and thoughts of thousands of years of human history, provides glimpses into past forms of thought and expression, while our contemporary engagement with writing stages our ongoing “conversation” with the past and each other, as well as our fears of and hopes for the future. This dynamic interplay, conducted through language and through written records, always exceeds simple communication of ideas and instead constitutes the ever-developing, changing, complex, and even contradictory flow of human thought.

In a highly interrelated way, writing is one of the primary ways through which we come to engage the world. As scholars and theorists from Lev Vygotsky and James Gee to Lisa Delpit and Judith Butler have articulated, none of us is born speaking language; we learn the words, the languages and the systems of communication given to us by our communities and cultures, through which we think ourselves, each other and the world. Maturation in language and writing is one of the ways in which we can come into critical consciousness of how we develop and articulate a sense of self in relation to words never fully our own. Writing therefore becomes one of the most powerful ways through which we not only connect but continue to develop a capacity to know the self in relation to others.

Human writing is also embodied, a practice of thought and communication engaged in by people who not only have a material relationship to the world but who are themselves material beings. Many writers, especially those occupying nonnormative or structurally marginalized positions, recognize that their writing practices are themselves embodied, emerging from their rich and sometimes vexed relations with political worlds that often organize and manage material resources in unfair, inequitable, and even damaging ways. Written experiences, accounts, and engagements from these perspectives have demonstrated that writing, in the hands of some, might pretend to a kind of objectivity, but that it does so in ignorance or elision of the material disparities that constitute the experiences of embodied beings in this world.

Text-generative AI presents a unique challenge to us as educators and theorists. While capable of producing rich and interesting texts, current platforms are not grounded in this humanistic understanding of language and writing. AI might best be understood as a kind of prosthetic intelligence—useful, but not fundamentally human. Further, text-generative AI pulls from a narrow range of data sets that not only do not reflect human individual and communal diversity, but are perhaps biased toward particular experiences and risk reproducing those experiences as normative, even dominant. The rich panoply of human language use and written engagement speaks to stylistic, ideological and expressive capacities of human experience and interconnection that far exceed what is currently produced by AI. Indeed, while AI might be able to produce some of the stylistic choices of embodied writers, including those who write from particular embodied and material conditions, it cannot itself know those conditions and write from experience of them. As such, it can produce approximations but not knowledge of embodied awareness in a world of unequal access to material and cultural resources.

How do such values translate into the classroom, especially the writing classroom? Our goal as higher educators who teach writing is to forward a richly humanistic understanding of language and writing. This does not mean that we exclude engagement with AI-generated text, but it does mean teaching students that human writing is one powerful enabler of complex thinking and one of the most powerful—and embodied—sites of interconnection between self and other, the individual and community.

Further, the teaching of writing and communication, including consideration of digital tools enabling writing and communication, is very context-based. We as instructors and curriculum designers should always consider what skills, practices, habits of mind, and knowledge about writing and communication are best suited for students’ needs and development—in terms of students’ preparedness, the disciplines and domains in which they are asked to participate, and their placement in the overall learning trajectory of their collegiate careers. We should also consider that we cannot anticipate all of the kinds of writing our students may be asked to do or may want to do in their careers and in their lives. While we can’t prepare them for everything, we can offer them the richest possible experiences of writing.

With all of this in mind, and in the spirit of the 1974 statement on “Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” I propose the following:

  • Students have the right to high-quality instruction in writing and communication, including robust opportunities to explore their own writing and communication abilities in relationship to critical and creative thought.
  • Students have the right to be exposed to and learn about various tools, digital and otherwise, that enable writing and communication. This includes the development of critical literacy skills in understanding what such tools are able to do, what their limitations are, who has made them and to what purpose, and what social impact the use of such tools might incur.
  • Students have the right to understand the environmental impact of any writing and communication tool that they use or are asked to use.

There is so much more I could say about all of these points, and I hope interested readers and I can engage in “generative” and human conversation about these issues. But for now, suffice it to say that all students have the right to learn about, explore, develop, and experience a wide range of their own human, critical, and creative capacities to write. Any adoption or use of any digital tool should proceed from this basic understanding of what we as writing teachers do.

Jonathan Alexander is the Chancellor’s Professor of English at University of California, Irvine.

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