I’m sitting in one of the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning’s Writing Center’s tiny study rooms with a student I’ve worked with before. The spring 2023 semester has just begun. His assignment tonight is to write an essay in collaboration with ChatGPT, and my job as a Writing Partner is to help him brainstorm prompts. We feed one to the AI, watch its cursor dart across his screen and read its output. No good: it’s too generic, too optimistic. We revise the prompt and try again. Forty-five more minutes of this, and then the session ends. There are words on his Google Doc now, but I’m not sure we’ve learned anything.
Since ChatGPT was released to the public late last year, I’ve had multiple sessions like this. Last semester, the Poorvu Center hosted several workshops on ChatGPT. The University Provost Scott Strobol and Associate Provost for Academic Initiatives Jennifer Frederick emailed faculty regarding the “opportunities” and “challenges” presented by generative AI, and several instructors incorporated AI-centered assignments into their syllabi. Yale’s rapid adaptation to the generative AI “revolution” looks set to continue into the fall, with the Poorvu Center updating its AI guidance in August. But amid our rapid adaptation, are we still learning how to write?
When I work with students in introductory writing classes, I often joke that our job is to beat the five-paragraph essay out of their brains. Good writing takes creativity, and the writing habits taught in high school often stifle that creativity. The website of English 114, which is many Yalies’ introduction to college-level writing, likewise encourages students to “explore deep questions and experiment with different modes of argument.” When generative AI enters the classroom, though, we risk backtracking on these objectives. Why close-read a Barthes essay to identify tensions, for example, when your computer can easily find some for you? Why worry about how to arrange your thoughts when ChatGPT can cook up a made-to-order outline?
In a forum hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education last summer, the University of California San Diego’s Academic-Integrity Coordinator Tricia Bertram Gallant argued that generative AI may be to writing what the calculator is to math. “What are the basic skills in writing that need to be taught,” she asked, “even if we are going to be writing with ChatGPT in the future? And then once students are taught those, can they cognitively offload them to artificial intelligence so that they can then build on those skills with higher-order skills?”
But “offloading” basic writing skills isn’t the same as adding numbers on a calculator. The latter is a purely mechanical process; the former is creative from the start. Writing is thinking: it’s how we’re taught to engage with others’ ideas, sit with our own and develop them into something worth sharing. When we outline, we give life to the flow of our writing, and we create our own unique voices through our diction and syntactical choices. Each step is deeply human. If we trust AI to do writing’s grunt work for us, we lose our connection to the individual sentences, phrases and words that comprise our arguments.
None of this is to say that writing classes at Yale have been drowned in a wave of technophilic enthusiasm or even that ChatGPT is being welcomed uncritically by those professors who ask students to engage with it. As professor Ben Glaser, who teaches an English 114 section titled “Writing Essays with AI,” told me over Zoom, “my hope is that I’m giving [students] confidence to see that they have abilities as a writer that exceed ChatGPT.”
There is merit in working with students to demonstrate the abilities — and limits — of emergent technology. But as the technology grows more sophisticated, I fear that our classroom engagement may slowly lose its critical edge. If we determine ChatGPT can handle select lower-level writing tasks, will we be able to draw a line somewhere? Or will it gradually swallow the entire craft, cornering our antiquated modes of thinking?
Perhaps, in ten years, the Writing Center will no longer exist. Professors are researching generative AI’s potential to act as a mentor, tutor and coach, among other roles. Students and schools may continue to adapt, offloading larger and larger chunks of the essay-writing process to machines that seem smarter each passing day. But, at the risk of sounding like a crotchety old-timer, I’d caution against our eager experimentation with generative AI as a writing tool. Creative tasks belong to creative intelligence. Our classrooms must remain vigilant to ensure that this remains true.
JASMINE WRIGHT is a senior in Davenport majoring in English. She is a current Writing Partner at the Yale College Writing Center. Contact her at email@example.com