A Message to Students About ‘The Bot’

In a world where students are taught to write like robots, it’s no surprise that a robot can write for them, Julia McKenzie Munemo writes.

January 23, 2023
A robotic hand types on a keyboard.
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As the director of the writing center at Williams College, I’ll admit to having reached out to a few writing center directors at other colleges in recent weeks with a message that said, more or less, “We’re toast.”

That’s because no essay produced by the artificial intelligence chat bot that has unsettled so many of us in higher education will contain a typo, misplace a modifier, overuse the comma or—and on this you can defiantly depend—misspell an adverb. By and large, those are the issues students visit my writing center to discuss. We’ve come to see the goal of writing as getting to our point quickly, making a strong argument and concluding carefully, all with perfect grammar and syntax. But anyone who has revised a paper, come back to an idea after a sleep or a walk or a shower, or worked with a tutor to brainstorm new directions will tell you that the true goal of writing is to clarify, understand and experience our own thinking.

The Bot will steal that from you. If I could send one message to students, it would be: don’t let it.

There will always be writers. I’m not wringing my hands about the end of writing, literature or even the excellent academic essay. What I’m saying is: students for whom writing feels like a transaction or a chore will no longer be motivated to practice it. (Writing is, above all, a practice.) With The Bot, you can effortlessly and almost instantly produce essays that one faculty colleague of mine described as surface level and formulaic but solidly in the B range.

If that’s the case, if a student could earn a B with a creation from The Bot, I fear we’re thinking about writing all wrong—and not only in higher education. In a world where students are taught to write like robots, a robot can write for them. Students who care more about their GPA than muddling through ideas and learning how to think will run to The Bot to produce the cleanest written English. It won’t matter a great deal to them that the ideas The Bot spits out aren’t their own. The Bot’s clean paper might get them a B, the professor will move on to the next paper none the wiser (if they don’t run the essay through the AI-content detector, that is) and everyone’s time will have been wasted.

When, on the other hand, writing is seen as an iterative process that helps students figure out what they think, the goal isn’t to produce typo- and error-free final papers. The goal is to work through thoughts and further research and revision to land on something potentially messy but deeply thought out. Writing as thinking becomes both the process and the result.

This essay itself is an example of my point: I didn’t know what I really thought about The Bot as I sat down to write this. I just knew it made me uncomfortable and that writing about it would help me understand why. I wrote this piece explicitly to find the pathways of my own thinking and to lead me to a conclusion I understand and can defend. By the time you read it, with any luck, it will seem as though I knew what I was planning to say from the outset, but I promise you that as I sit here in my dining room muddling through each paragraph, jotting down random ideas as they pop in my head, taking a shower to clarify my thoughts and reading yet more articles about The Bot, I am completely uncertain about what I’m hoping to convey.

But, partway through, something shifted. I read opinions about The Bot that I disagreed with, ones that made me bristle with their assumptions and ideas about what education is. And as I tell students every day, “Where there is disagreement, there is a good paper topic.” My writing led to deeper thinking and to a better understanding of my own position. I revised my draft. I sent it to a colleague for feedback. I slept on it and came back to it in the morning with new ideas. It is this process I don’t want today’s college students to miss.

To see why, let’s follow The Bot on a little journey as I plug a prompt into it. (Sorry, I hit a wall. Plus, it’s research!) I typed in, “600-word opinion piece about why not to use AI to write an academic essay.” There was a brief pause, and then the cursor on the screen magically started to move to the right, words trailing almost beautifully in its wake. God! Could writing really look like that? So easy. So smooth. After about 15 seconds, this filled up my screen:

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There are several reasons why using a large language model to write an academic essay is not a good idea.

First and foremost, a large language model is not capable of conducting independent research or gathering new information. It is only capable of generating text based on the input it is given, so it would not be able to provide original insights or perspectives on the topic at hand. As such, any essay written using AI would likely be based on information that is already widely available and may not be up-to-date or accurate.

Secondly, large language models are not capable of understanding the context or nuances of a given topic. They are essentially just repeating patterns they have seen in the text they were trained on, so they cannot provide in-depth analysis or critically evaluate arguments. This lack of understanding would make it difficult, if not impossible, for an essay written using AI to meet the rigorous standards of academic writing.

Thirdly, using any automated tool to write an academic essay raises ethical concerns. Academic writing is supposed to be the product of original research and critical thinking, and using a tool like this to generate text undermines the integrity of the work. It also raises concerns about plagiarism, as the text generated by AI may be similar to existing works, and it may be difficult to properly attribute the sources used by the model.

In conclusion, while large language models may be able to generate coherent text, they lack the ability to conduct independent research, understand the context of a topic, and critically evaluate arguments. As such, using a bot to write an academic essay is not a good idea and raises ethical concerns. Instead, students should rely on their own knowledge and research skills to produce original and well-written academic essays.

First of all, snore. And as any good teacher will tell you, if you’re bored when you’re writing (or reading what The Bot wrote for you), they’ll be bored when they’re reading, and bored teachers don’t give generous grades. Second, I know next to nothing about how large language models work, so how can “I” argue they’re flawed tools? Third (and again, as I tell students all the time), the five-paragraph essay served as training wheels on your bike when you were little—but college is the time to remove them and balance on your own. And finally, a conclusion that just repeats your main points is no conclusion at all. I’m not sure I would give this effort a B, no matter how grammatically correct it is.

But as our journey shows, The Bot has arrived. So now we’re in a bifurcated world: on one side are students who will use The Bot to create the clean writing they think their professors want, to augment their writing process with ideas they didn’t have on their own or to generate paragraph structure when they’re stuck. On the other side are the students who will continue to write the old-fashioned way—though, to be sure, any essays with mechanical errors will now exclusively come from this latter group. Some argue this levels the playing field: everyone’s sentences are clear, all paragraphs are well structured and build to a natural conclusion, spelling is perfect, and grammatical errors are absent. Hooray! After all, writing is an equity issue. Let’s absolutely level the playing field, because faculty judge students from underresourced schools alongside those from prep schools, neurodivergent students alongside “mainstream” thinkers and multilingual writers alongside native English speakers. How wonderful would it be if faculties’ implicit (or explicit) biases about these groups could be squashed by uniformly well-structured essays?

Well, hang on. Don’t we know that all bifurcation leads to someone’s oppression? Name a faculty member who can’t spot surface-level thinking and formulaic writing. Rather than leveling the playing field, I believe we are dangerously close to creating two strata of students: those whom we deem smart and insightful and deeply thoughtful, if sometimes guilty of a typo, and those who seem less engaged with the material, or less able to have serious thoughts about it. Imagine if I published The Bot’s op-ed with my byline in our student newspaper; would students come to see me the next time they’re struggling with a paper? Would faculty continue to invite me to give workshops in their classes? Yes, writing is an equity issue, but it’s not just about using Standard American English and “properly” structuring essays so that professors judge all students with the same metric. Students who let The Bot speak for them aren’t doing themselves any favors in the long run.

Listen, writing is hard. We hit walls, stare at the blank page, return to our research, underline new ideas, check out new books and come back to the blank page. It’s daunting and overwhelming and, at least in my experience, fills me with self-doubt and anxiety. I have never written anything—not a college paper, not my senior thesis or my master’s thesis, not any article I wrote over a 15-year freelance career, and certainly not my book or this essay—in which I knew what I thought about the topic until I’d written about it for a pretty long time.

Writing, rewriting and revision work. The process helps you think. Students: don’t rob yourself of the chance to understand—and expand—your own brain. Don’t waste your years in college looking for shortcuts. Don’t let The Bot do your writing about books or big ideas or science experiments for you, and let what you could have learned from them disappear.

Writing is thinking. Practice one to sharpen the other. It may not be the only way to a college degree, but it’s the best way to get the most out of it.

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Julia McKenzie Munemo directs the Williams College Writing Center and is the author of The Book Keeper: A Memoir of Race, Love, and Legacy (Swallow Press, 2020).

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