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ChatGPT and what we value in writing instruction (opinion) | Inside Higher Ed


Perhaps because it showed up at the end of the fall semester, when so many of us were exhausted from grading, from the tripledemic, from Zoom meetings, or maybe because we knew something like this was coming—we just knew it—but news of ChatGPT’s ability to write what many consider to be perfectly adequate student essays has not settled well on higher education.

Stephen Marche tells us “The College Essay Is Dead,” while, in a separate essay for The Atlantic, Daniel Herman considers “The End of High-School English.” Even Google seems concerned about sharing its turf. Google!

My many years of English courses have taught me to be skeptical of such hyperbole, so I decided to test it out myself. I began by entering one of the 2022–23 Common App essay prompts into the program:

Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

As soon as I pressed enter, I realized that I should have instructed the model on length, but I thought, “Maybe it’ll somehow know.” After all, the chat bot has apparently killed both high school English and the college essay. Who knows what else it’s capable of?

Here was the response:

One thing that someone has done for me that has made me happy and thankful in a surprising way was when a friend of mine offered to drive me to the airport for an early morning flight. I had not asked for their help and was planning on taking an Uber, so when they offered to take me themselves, I was really touched by their thoughtfulness and kindness.

This act of kindness motivated me to be more aware of the needs of others and to try to be more helpful and supportive in my own relationships. It also reminded me to be grateful for the friends and loved ones in my life who are always there for me and willing to go above and beyond to show their care and support. It made me realize the power of small gestures to make a big difference in someone’s day and to inspire feelings of gratitude and appreciation.

Grammatically fine, on topic, probably passable for many students. After all, if I were a student used to red ink on my essays, I’d happily submit this. Why? Because that red ink has shown me over the years that I am not a good writer. My comma usage is suspect. I may shift subjects midparagraph. I might have a hard time staying on topic. If that is what I’ve been hearing from English teachers my entire academic life, this fixes all of those problems.

But what happens when I rewrite the prompt, asking this time for 500 words? I get this:

One thing that someone has done for me that has made me happy and thankful in a surprising way was when a friend of mine offered to drive me to the airport for an early morning flight. I had not asked for their help and was planning on taking an Uber, so when they offered to take me themselves, I was really touched by their thoughtfulness and kindness.

This act of kindness really stood out to me because it was unexpected and completely selfless. My friend could have easily taken the opportunity to sleep in or use the time to do something for themselves, but instead, they woke up early and offered to help me out. It was a small gesture, but it made a big impact on me and showed me how much they cared about me and my well-being.

This experience made me feel grateful and appreciative of the people in my life who are always willing to lend a helping hand, even when it’s not asked for. It reminded me of the value of kindness and the power it has to make a positive difference in someone’s day.

In terms of how this gratitude has affected me, it has definitely motivated me to be more mindful of the needs of others and to try to pay it forward by being more helpful and supportive in my own relationships. It’s easy to get caught up in our own lives and priorities, but moments like this remind me of the importance of being there for others and showing them that they matter.

In addition to motivating me to be more supportive of others, this act of kindness also made me more aware of my own gratitude and the impact it can have on my relationships. It’s easy to take the people and things we have for granted, but expressing gratitude and appreciation can go a long way in strengthening our connections with others.

Overall, this experience was a reminder of the power of small acts of kindness and the importance of being grateful for the people and things in our lives. It has motivated me to be more mindful of the needs of others and to show my appreciation for the people who make a positive difference in my life.

Introduction, body, conclusion? Check, check, check! And hello, transitions! I see you. What English professor has not spent the better part of a month convincing their students to use them? Check!

This is a technically proficient essay for a student entering college. Again, if I were a student who had heard my whole life that I am not a proficient writer, this would be a game-changer. But what was it like to read? Did you make it to the end, or just skim? Or did you follow my initial gut reaction, which was to read the first paragraph and say, “I see where this is going,” and then not even bother to skim because you didn’t need to? This might be because, as Tressie McMillan Cottom explains, “ChatGPT impersonates sentiment with sophisticated word choice but still there’s no élan. The essay does not invoke curiosity or any other emotion. There is a voice, but it is mechanical. It does not incite, offend or seduce. That’s because real voice is more than grammatical patternmaking.” What is missing from the Common App response is humanity, emotion. The essay evokes nothing in the reader–no response, no connection to self, to the world. It certainly wouldn’t make it through an admissions review.

Contrary to their hyperbolic titles, Marche and Herman’s essays are not, in fact, about the death of the essay or the end of high school English. Instead, they bring up many of the important issues that the humanities have been grappling with for decades: relevance, creativity, assessment, shrinking enrollments. ChatGPT is simply another reason to keep grappling and, as Marche implies, maybe speed things up a bit.

Herman brings up another, more critical issue. Later in his essay, he divides his high school students in thirds in a hierarchy of writing proficiency: the lowest group that’s “learning to master grammar rules, punctuation, basic comprehension, and legibility”; a middle group that “mostly has that stuff down and is working on argument and organization”; and the highest group “that has the luxury of focusing on things such as tone, rhythm, variety, mellifluence.” According to Herman, most students will never reach the highest level.

ChatGPT also has the ability to revise draft writing by improving grammar and clarity. Herman describes feeding a student’s draft essay into the model with the prompt “Can you fix this essay up and make it better?”—only to find that it could.

“Maybe every student is now immediately launched into that third category,” Herman posits. “The rudiments of writing will be considered a given, and every student will have direct access to the finer aspects of the enterprise. Whatever is inimitable within them can be made conspicuous, freed from the troublesome mechanics of comma splices, subject-verb disagreement, and dangling modifiers.”

It is at this point that I consider my own time in the classroom, where for many years I worked with “developmental writers,” those students who struggled with either Herman’s first- or second-level issues, or sometimes both. These were nontraditional adult students, immigrant students, students coming from underfunded rural or predominantly Black school districts, and students with learning disabilities, to name a few. These are the students who are currently being left out of the ChatGPT discussion. Using Herman’s categories, I have seen students exhibit unique writing voices, rhythm, variety, creativity—features of his highest-level writers—while struggling with mechanical issues and organization. Putting aside for a moment the much larger discussion of the ways in which Standard American English are rooted in whiteness and therefore naturally privilege some writers over others (see Asao B. Inoue’s work on antiracist writing pedagogy and white language supremacy), we see how these students disrupt Herman’s writing skill hierarchy and how and why we should be thinking about these students in the context of chat-bot writing.

Consider how one such student defines nature in an anonymous virtual bulletin board: “For me nature is somewhere we go to disconnect from the world around us a safe, serene, and beautiful place. Also where everything is alive and far from the pollution of the everyday life we live in.” Are these sentences grammatically or mechanically correct? No. But they tell us about how the writer defines the term, and how that definition is deeply connected to their own position in the world, and their perception of where that is—away from the safety and purity that nature signifies. There is a lot to unpack there, and that’s just the thing. Where the chat bot essay produced no emotional response in the reader (beyond boredom, anyway), these two sentences evoke concern, curiosity, perhaps some assumptions about the writer, but also a desire to know more.

ChatGPT produces correct Standard American English, but (for now, anyway) it can’t produce the complex, deeply engaging work my “developmental” writers could. The best writing challenges us; it provides us with a snapshot into the writer’s mind, into seeing how the writer has engaged with their subject, how they developed and challenged their ideas, and how they connect their own ideas to those with whom they are in conversation. Are these the qualities we are championing in the classroom? Are these the observations we graffiti on our writers’ drafts? Students will only gravitate to chat bots if the message they are getting from their writing instructors is that the most important qualities of writing are technical proficiency and correctness.

Marche sees this moment as an opportunity to bridge what he calls the “chasm” between technology and humanism, but perhaps instead teachers of writing can use the moment to attend to matters that are more in-house. Herman concludes his essay with a series of questions that could be taken as dismissive, but I take as sincere:

Everything is made up; it’s true. The essay as a literary form? Made up. Grammatical rules as markers of intelligence? Writing itself as a technology? Made up. Starting now, OpenAI is forcing us to ask foundational questions about whether any of those things are worth keeping around.

“That’s what we’ve been trying to tell you!” the progressive writing faculty among us might be thinking. If the outcome of ChatGPT is a greater, deeper discussion about the ways in which we approach academic writing in the classroom, the ways in which we discuss what good writing does and how to assess it, then we should welcome it with open arms. We should be telling our undergraduates that good writing isn’t just about subject-verb agreement or avoiding grammatical errors—not even good academic writing. Good writing reminds us of our humanity, the humanity of others and all the ugly, beautiful ways in which we exist in the world.



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ChatGPT and what we value in writing instruction (opinion) |
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