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LuElla D'AmicoMay 15, 2023
Justice Hardy, a writer on the television series "True Lies," holds up a sign as members of The Writers Guild of America picket outside Warner Bros. Studios, on May 2, 2023, in Burbank, Calif. The use of ChatGPT is as controversial in the entertainment industry as it is in schools. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)Justice Hardy, a writer on the television series "True Lies," holds up a sign as members of The Writers Guild of America picket outside Warner Bros. Studios, on May 2, 2023, in Burbank, Calif. The use of ChatGPT is as controversial in the entertainment industry as it is in schools. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Like many writing and literature instructors across the country, I am starting to wonder how many of my students’ essays are generated by artificial intelligence and, specifically, by ChatGPT. In an online survey conducted in February, 30 percent of all U.S. college students said that they have already used ChatGPT for their written assignments, even while three-fourths of these ChatGPT users agreed that it is a form of cheating.

College instructors are also quickly becoming dependent on ChatGPT, using it to plan lessons and to give feedback to students about their work. These instructors perceive ChatGPT, as their students likely do, as a timesaver. Why write an email yourself when ChatGPT can generate one for you? Why write your own comments when you can run a student’s paper through ChatGPT? ChatGPT can calculate grades, and it can offer specific comments to students about their style and grammar.

College instructors are becoming dependent on ChatGPT, using it to plan lessons and to give feedback to students about their work. These instructors perceive ChatGPT, as their students likely do, as a timesaver.

Technology is seductive, and when it can create shortcuts, there is a strong pressure to use it. College administrators love to prove how forward-looking and agile their schools are, so they are now discussing all the ways professors might incorporate ChatGPT in their classrooms. Sure, an individual instructor can say no, but not using the A.I. tool can stigmatize a teacher as antiquated, or as someone who can’t adapt to the times. “Resistance is futile,” as the Borg say in the “Star Trek” universe. Ask too many difficult questions about the ethical nature of the technology, about its ramifications for student and instructor minds alike, and it may seem that you’re just stubbornly refusing to acknowledge reality.

Duke University recently held a provosts’ forum with the tagline “ChatGPT is here to stay,” as did the University of Colorado. In higher educational circles, we don’t talk about whether we ought to use artificial intelligence but how we’re going to use it, since it is part and parcel of our culture now. ChatGPT is like the Covid-19 pandemic in that instructors are expected to adapt their teaching without taking time to consider the long-term effects on the students we serve or on instructors themselves. We now know that student learning suffered during the switch to online and remote instruction, and that more students are suffering from anxiety and depression as they spend more time alone. I foresee similar negative effects from ChatGPT. Why should a student make much of an effort if a machine can just as effectively complete the assignments for a class? What is the point of education at all? The listlessness students already feel because of the pandemic may become worse.

The tech moguls who created tools like ChatGPT are neither ethicists, psychologists, writers nor educators. But we instructors are being given demands to adapt to the system they created. Student achievement gaps in higher education have already widened because of the pandemic, with vulnerable populations like Black, Hispanic and low-income learners falling behind. I worry that in refusing to acknowledge ChatGPT’s potential problems, we risk losing tools, like the student essay, that can improve learning across the board. In my college composition classes, I have already created workarounds to ChatGPT to encourage critical thinking, such as in-class writing assignments, oral arguments and group assignments. But they are not a substitute for the lengthy process of writing a formal essay. Researching, rewriting and struggling with the best way to articulate an argument transforms how students think and perceive the world.

[Related: “What ChatGPT reveals about our history—and demands of our present.”]

Essay writing requires serious internal inquiry, as well as emotional vulnerability. It calls for an attentive state that other types of learning cannot replicate. One might compare the process with contemplative prayer. But students in our technologically saturated age are rarely given opportunities to practice long-form concentration. If we take away the requirement that students develop their attention span through writing, we put their psychological development at risk, and that threatens the future for all of us.

In his foundational text The Risk of Education, the Italian priest and educator Luigi Giuissani reminds readers: “The basic idea behind the education of young people is that society is rebuilt through them..... The chief topic for [educators], in all our discussions, is...education of what is human, of the original element present in all of us.”

Essay writing requires serious internal inquiry, as well as emotional vulnerability. But students in our technologically saturated age are rarely given opportunities to practice long-form concentration.

Catholic colleges and universities aim to educate the whole person, and writing courses are linchpins in this process. In this vein, before giving feedback on assignments, I get to know my students and tailor my approach to each one, focusing not only on their writing but also on how they might react to my comments. ChatGPT can never reproduce this personal approach; it can only make us drift farther from Giussani’s “original element present in all of us.” Writing in a classroom environment should be personal at every point, from the creating to the grading. The worst-case scenario, especially with online education on the rise since Covid, could be technology credentialing technology: Students write with ChatGPT, then professors grade them with the same tool. And the personal is taken out of education more and more.

College faculty should push back against ChatGPT because their students are still learning the basic elements of writing and deserve that their humanity be celebrated. In my classes I remind students that the goal is not that they can write an essay perfectly but that they can work through an idea to get to a place where they are excited for another person to read what they have created. The best outcome from ChatGPT would be a backlash from students, as they begin to view themselves as part of the same countercultural movement professors like myself are encouraging: a movement that rejoices in human thought, for all its imperfections and its starts and stops, as the best way to form thought and thereby shape our future.

In the end, our students’ minds matter more than the assertion that ChatGPT is here to stay. Is ChatGPT here to stay if we value intellectual freedom? Is it if we value human dignity? As someone committed to social justice, I resist the notion that skepticism about this technology is anything less than a fight for my students’ whole selves.

[Read next: “I’m a priest and Writers Guild member. Here’s why Catholics should support the writers strike.”]

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