Recently, I was in a meeting with department chairs and administrators at my high school. We were discussing the agenda when the topic of ChatGPT elicited a collective groan. It had only been a few weeks into the semester, and we had already sent dozens of students’ names to administrators to report this new version of plagiarism. After discussing revisions to our existing policies, a colleague added, “We have to go back to old-school methods. It’s time for handwritten essays in class without devices. That’s the only way to get around this.”
I’ve heard the same sentiment echoed in other professional circles I follow, and I wince at the prospect every time. In these same conversations, I hear teachers eager to revert back to timed writing by hand, the five-paragraph essay, and other formulaic approaches to writing. While I understand their concern about the threat of ChatGPT, is this really how we create possibilities for our students to grow as writers? How can students thrive if we place even more restrictions on their already-clipped wings?
The Source of Teachers’ Concerns
Years ago, I learned about artificial intelligence (AI) assistance in student writing in an online forum for English teachers. We used to wring our hands about its ability to paraphrase work for students. When ChatGPT was released last November, the group’s concern quickly shifted to panic. Teachers tested prompt after prompt, and while the essays ChatGPT spit out weren’t exemplary, it was human enough for students to pass the work off as their own.
Like most hand-wringing, though, I suspect that teachers are not actually worried about students cheating or their jobs becoming obsolete; after all, cheating is nothing new. As we returned from winter break, knowing our students were armed with this information, we were more concerned about what might happen when our students no longer interacted with the skills developed in our courses.
My favorite moments are always when a student arrives to class breathless telling me they’ve scrapped an entire essay. “I was in the middle of research and realized I was completely wrong. Can I start over?” Or when they ask, “So if I’m writing to this senator, I have to actually find out what she thinks first, right?” Formulaic writing, especially tasks completed within the span of a class period, robs students of the opportunities to consider their audience and think strategically about their argument and voice. Like many teachers who grappled with ChatGPT, my initial concerns were that these moments would become another casualty of AI.
Pulling Back the Curtain
As publication after publication announced the end of my career and the discipline I love so dearly, I knew ChatGPT wasn’t just another round in the long game of whack-a-mole we play when it comes to preventing students from cheating. The more I played with the interface and read about ChatGPT’s less famous – but potentially more effective – cousins, the more I realized that my efforts to curb cheating would soon become futile.