ChatGPT has arrived at my school and is threatening to send my colleagues into early retirement. This new artificial intelligence tool has leapt from Twitter timelines and New York Times headlines into my school’s classrooms in mere weeks. As an academic dean, I have been inundated with fears about the new technology from teachers in every discipline.
But math teachers have been through this before, with the calculator long ago and the Photomath homework smartphone app more recently. History teachers weathered the storms of Wikipedia and Google, which some people promised meant that students didn’t “need to know anything.” Now, it’s time for English teachers to gather their wits and jump into the fray.
In just the first few days after it was released to the public, I watched my students ask this AI bot to interpret Emily Dickinson’s poems and write whole essays about those same poems in her elliptical, enigmatic style. Simultaneously astounded and disappointed (it turns out that ChatGPT’s current strength is not ventriloquizing one of our nation’s poetic geniuses), my students were quick to voice their worries with the existential doom I’ve come to expect from 17-year-olds. “What has my entire education been for?” they lamented. “Why should I bother going to college?”
While rendered with new urgency, their questions aren’t all that different from the ones students have been asking with increasing fervency in the last several decades as technology and finance have displaced the humanities’ pride of place in the firmament of liberal learning. My answer then and now has remained quite simple: Education is the place where, if we are lucky, we can train our minds to be worthy companions for the rest of our lives. Reading and writing critically and creatively remain at the core of that project. When we harness those skills, we become more than just better thinkers. We find that the loneliness of being human is soothed.
A number of years ago, I abandoned the dominant paradigm of high school composition, the five-paragraph essay. I had grown tired of its wooden structure and skeptical of its simplistic epistemology that tells students any truth can be revealed with three bits of evidence and a tidy conclusion.
In place of the five-paragraph essay’s manufactured argument and cherry-picked evidence, I built thesis-seeking and exploratory assignments that began with students’ curious observations, buzzing questions, and scraps of speculation.
The essays that students construct in my classes now might best be characterized as walks without a destination in mind. In writing these essays, they lace up their shoes, set out from home, and roam through a limitless landscape. They gaze in wonder at a murmuration of starlings whirling overhead. Like the wandering Walt Whitman, they tuck their trouser-ends into their boots and have a good time. They change directions, get lost in the brambles, find a companion to walk beside for a spell, and eventually end up in a place that they did not previously know existed. Their writing charts this journey in an unabashedly first-person voice.
These are the highly personalized assignments we must prioritize in an era of AI essay writing.
First, I ask my students to describe the places where they sought initial answers and the substance and limitations of these first discoveries. My students might begin in dusty volumes in the library’s basement, in abstruse scholarly articles, or even in conversations with a grandmother. Describing the shortcomings of their initial discoveries prompts them to revise their questions and rethink their fledgling claims.
Soon they begin to spin a web of new and better questions. To answer these, they follow footnotes or flip back to the novel they loved a year ago. I often find them drawing maps, charting the path of their wandering. With each step into a new source, they practice critique and synthesis, asking “What does this help me understand?” and “What happens when I add it to what I already know?”
Some paths lead to unscalable brick walls. Others open to three-way forks in the road. Still others require bridges and great leaps to get to the other side of unknowing.
I’ll ask them to train their critical gaze on ChatGPT’s ready answers and decide which ones merit more investigation, as I have been doing.
As their teacher, I cheer from behind the hedgerow. Very occasionally, I whisper a compass reading or hand them a new pair of binoculars. My first job is to ensure that they have the tools to arrive at a place of new understanding but almost as important is my responsibility to help them recognize the value of the walk that they took even if their final destination remains elusive. After all, sometimes their questions should outpace their answers.
I imagine that ChatGPT will, whether I like it or not, quickly become a place on the map where my students stop for a time and look around. I won’t tell them that it is as dangerous as quicksand or as insurmountable as Everest. Instead, I’ll ask them to train their critical gaze on ChatGPT’s ready answers and decide which ones merit more investigation, as I have been doing. As always, I will ask them to forge ahead to new and different places so that the path they eventually lay down in writing will be theirs alone.
So, what will I be telling faculty now that ChatGPT arrived? Now is the time for us teachers to do some thoughtful wandering of our own. In each discipline, we must determine what it means to guide our students toward the skills that will enable lives of meaning and purpose. In the coming weeks, I’m going to be asking my colleagues to consider this prompt: “I’m a [insert your subject] teacher. Here’s how I’m dealing with ChatGPT.”
Our range of answers may only temporarily stem AI’s swiftly moving current, but in our gathering, thinking, and distilling—in our journeying—we will be less lonely together.
This article was written by a living, breathing teacher.
A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2023 edition of Education Week as What ChatGPT Means For Writing Instruction