Let’s Stop Talking About ChatGPT

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In a recent Inside Higher Ed piece, Jeremy Weissman calls ChatGPT a “plague upon education,” analogizing it to COVID, saying that this plague “threatens our minds more than our bodies.”

ChatGPT is a potential “calamity” with faculty “worried that the first cases of GPT may have popped up in their classrooms.”

Weissman also says, “We are largely defenseless against this novel threat to human intelligence and academic integrity.”

Weissman goes on to suggest some possible early defenses, such as more in-class assignments, or internet-disabled computer labs on campus where writing can occur.

On Twitter, I joked that I was considering transitioning to students working on a wax tablet and stylus, or perhaps even older-school—stone tablet and chisel. Charles Knight, also joking, replied that he was going to deliver a talk titled, “Are sheds the answer?”

I don’t think much of the notion that ChatGPT is a plague akin to COVID. Granting this much power and agency to a nonliving piece of technology that we control seems counterproductive to me.

There is nothing new about the dynamic of students being incentivized to finding routes around the work in order to get a grade. This dynamic is as old as school itself, and much of the freaking out around ChatGPT is wrapped up in thinking about how we’re going to make sure students don’t cheat on assignments that, if you ask me, are not worth all that much in terms of helping students learn.

As I’ve been saying as much as I can, ChatGPT is an opportunity, not a threat, an opportunity to examine the work we ask students to do and the conditions under which teaching and learning happen, and to rethink our approaches in ways that make this so-called plague just another thing out in the world that we need to be aware of but not spend too much time worrying about.

The cure, I believe, is to stop giving writing “assignments” and instead challenge students with writing “experiences.” It just so happens that this is the approach I’ve been advocating for literally for years, in my books Why They Can’t Write and The Writer’s Practice. I know this approach keeps students engaged not only from my own work as an instructor, but from the dozens, dare I say hundreds of classrooms in which The Writer’s Practice has been used.

In order to further help in seizing this opportunity, I’m pleased to announce a new, digital, self-paced course by yours truly titled Teaching Writing in an Artificial Intelligence World.

To answer some questions people might be having:

Who is this course for?

The course is intended for any teacher or instructor who assigns writing in their classes, essentially from sixth grade up through undergraduate education.

So, writing teachers?

No, anyone who asks their students to write, regardless of the subject or if they teach writing. One of the problems of how we teach writing in our current system is thinking that it is the province of writing classes. The course is meant to help anyone who asks their students to write by helping them design writing experiences that will engage their students and make using ChatGPT as a substitute for the work of writing like a waste of time.

What are you hoping people will learn from the course?

While I am obviously a big believer in the curriculum I’ve collected in the book The Writer’s Practice, the goal of the course is to help others reconceive their own curriculum using a similar framework.

For this to work, instructors need to build experiences aligned with their disciplines and their pedagogical values. This course is a route toward helping teachers figure those things out.

The course is designed around five units:

  1. Should We Be Freaking Out About ChatGPT? No.
  2. Why They Can’t Write: The Difference Between Schooling and Learning.
  3. The Writer’s Practice: Living and Learning as Writers.
  4. Building Your Own Writing Experiences.
  5. Assessing Writing Experiences.

Is it just a course, and that’s it?

I hope not. The course is built in a platform that also allows for the building of community where instructors can gather to share their own experiences and interact on a continual basis. I will be an active participant, sharing new information and new insights as they occur, and if the course reaches critical mass, I hope to be able to bring in additional experts to interact with in the forum. I’ll also be updating the course as circumstances warrant.

I’m thinking about how I used to poke my head into the office of the instructors across the hall and ask what they were working on and then we’d end up talking shop about teaching for an hour.

Let’s talk shop about teaching, rather than wringing our hands endlessly about an algorithm.

Is the course really slick, with high production values that mask a lack of deep thought put into the content?

Uh … no. I think the production values are perfectly cromulent and nothing that will distract you from the content, but my belief was that getting the course into the world as quickly as possible was more important than hiring a production team to do something slicker.

In the intro video you can see Philip Roth’s clock radio over my shoulder resting on a bookshelf made by my grandfather, so there is that.

I suppose this costs money?

Yes, though I’ve made it as affordable as possible considering I’m partnered with others who can handle the back-end stuff I know nothing about, and that the course contains a significant portion of the intellectual property that helps me make a living helping others better teach writing. For the first few weeks, it’s going to be $97 for lifetime access, and after that it will be more. Also for lifetime access. You will be able to access this content long after I’m gone, unless and until an electromagnetic pulse wipes out the entire power grid and internet, in which case we have bigger problems than students trying to cheat using ChatGPT.

How are you feeling about it? Excited? Nervous?

Some combination of both. In my heart of hearts, I believe this approach could make a positive difference in the lives of students and teachers. This framework for teaching writing increased my own enjoyment in the work significantly, as it allowed me to bring my practices in line with my values. My hope is that the course can help other—likely overworked and underresourced—instructors achieve something similar.

But of course, any time you put something like this into the world, it may go splat, and the many hours of work I’ve crammed into the last couple of months to bring it to fruition will feel wasted.

I think it’s worth checking out, and should be eligible for using any kind of professional development money for purchase. I’m told by the people who handle this that there are bulk discounts available for school or department purchases/licensing.

If ChatGPT is a plague (which it isn’t), giving students work worth doing is the cure, and come to think of it, that’s a good thing in even nonplague conditions.

Teaching Writing in an Artificial Intelligence World

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Wednesday, February 15, 2023
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Wednesday, February 15, 2023