Rambling Rant about AI and Teaching Writing

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In a discussion with Carrot from The Dihedral, about Artificial Intelligence (AI), I was inspired to think about my life as a teacher. For the first time since I left the profession, I cried. That wasn’t really surprising because I loved teaching — really LOVED it.

I taught writing, all kinds of writing at the college/university level from remedial grammar (yikes!) to advanced business communication. For thirty-four of my thirty-eight years I got up ready to go and happy to start the day, though, admittedly, in the final four years or so various external problems and changes in the way my students had been taught before university diminished the joy. I took that as a sign to get out of the classroom. At the end, I hated going to school, but by then I had retired and was a “short-timer.”

I loved MOST the moments when a student GOT it, and the times when a student became inspired by what we were reading and it showed up in his/her writing. There were many students who understood that freshman comp was going to help them be what they wanted to be, and took the skills and ran with them — one of those guys is a DA in Florida now, though his dream was Oakland, where he grew up. The Iraqi girl who challenged everything then, when I told her that Fahrenheit 451 changed the world, she lit up. She wanted to change the world, too, and here was a novel that had? The list of amazing experiences is too long to write — or is it? Is a teaching memoir at all appropriate? Naw… My LinkedIn is mostly former students.

Yeah; we’ve all had crappy teachers and for some students, undoubtedly, I was one. For most, not. For a few I was inspiring.

Carrot is a philosophy teacher, and some of what he’s written is about AI as a writing “tool.” The point — one point — is that AI can do only what it’s learned to do, but it can do that very well. Humans can go beyond what they’ve learned to do. This matters. Maybe it’s where lovers and creators of AI are hoping AI will go, to legit reasoning in a creative way, but I don’t know that for sure.

It made me think about the role our senses play in our thinking process. I think our senses play an immense role sometimes in our thinking process and sometimes in overriding our thinking process like, you know, “luv’.” Would AI have that danger or that power? What about imagination? The ability to be inspired or (more important in a classroom) to inspire? The root of that word is what the classical writers prayed to the muses for, the breath of the gods. The breath of life. Would that magic ever show up in a text written by AI, except as it might be derived from the work the AI has “grazed”?

Carrot and I were discussing how to keep students from turning in papers written by AI. I think, you know, an old-school copy book, pen and in-class writing, but there are limits to that. Ideally it would — applied soon enough — give kids the idea that writing is a wonderful activity and not something you worry about “getting right.” All AI can really do is “get it right.” Sadly, toward the end of my career more and more students had been taught toward that very end; getting it right. AI can get it right. In standardized tests and standardized writing texts is the robotization of humans — and teachers.

I can imagine a whole coterie of people who would like to make teachers disposable. Yeah, I’ve learned from a “computer,” but it wasn’t really the computer teaching me. It was a group of people who’d made a really good language program who were teaching me.

Writing is thinking. We discover so much when we sit down with our thoughts and allow them to happen.

I don’t want to write (or read) about grades or evil English teachers or any of that. We’ve all had to contend with both — I had an English teacher in university who mocked me in front of the class for an essay I’d written. There are assholes everywhere, and I’m the first to agree that what we write and submit for someone else’s scrutiny and evaluation makes us vulnerable. I know how much students hate English and hate to write. I know all about it. I taught it for more than half my life. Every bad teacher taught me how to teach. Every bad paper (my own) taught me how to write. Every bad paper I read (from a student) taught me to teach better. It is the nature of learning to live in the world that — in the “safe” environment of a classroom — we meet the same jerks we’ll meet in the world of work.

But writing itself should never be “safe” or something we “get right.” Maybe AI can write “like Mark Twain,” but one Mark Twain is enough. That won’t inspire anything and the “god” that “inspires” AI is no divine voice. It’s us.

30 thoughts on “Rambling Rant about AI and Teaching Writing

  1. I messed around with this AI a little bit, and the “writing” is really dry and almost like newspaper copy. I would never put my name on such hackery! (is “hackery” a word?)

  2. AI is a blessing and a curse. We’re down to a birthrate of 1.61 here in the US. Japan is at 1.34 and China is at 1.28. That means fewer worker bees and more retiree bees. Somebody had to to the jobs that all the young people did as entry level workers. A lot of that workforce will be AI and robotics.

    OTOH I see it contributing to the dumbing down of the world. Not everyone enjoys writing or reading and if AI can do it for them, why bother learning? I can easily see a future were voice-text and text-voice apps eliminate any need to read or write. Reading and writing will become the domain of a handful of eccentrics who enjoy such things. Rather like silver based photography is today or like paper based news media are becoming.

    • I have no idea what the future will bring re: AI, reading and writing. BUT willful ignorance (aka stupidity) has definitely been given a platform in the last 10+ years as if it were the equal to curiosity, education and critical thinking. I dunno. Maybe the fruits of that will wake people up at some point.

      As for the birthrates across the world — I say good. I’m a proponent of ZPG. I think population and consumerism have brought enormous problems in our world. AI robots moving bins around an Amazon warehouse and AI writing aren’t quite the same in my view, but I really don’t know.

      • The late Isaac Azimov had some interesting things to say about the Cult of Ignorance back in 1980. It appears to have only gotten more valid as the years passed by.

        So did Carl Sagan.

  3. So this is the direction we are going… With the GPS in our car, it wants to redirect us if we decide to take an alternate route–like we don’t have brains enough to figure out where we’re going. AI is going to write for us to save us the trouble of having to figure out what we want to say. And then all the companies laying off the very people who paid a lot of money to get a college degree to get said job. Not sorry that I am done with all this ‘job’ stuff, but sad for those who will go through it. Let’s just dumb down all of society. Why would we want to do this??

    • I don’t know that’s where we are going. BUT the future (in which we might not live) will not be like any world we have known. I carry an Atlas in my car because, you know…

  4. I had a favorite teacher who warned us on the first day that many students who were used to getting “A”s might have trouble in this class. For exams he would play a piece of music and we had to write two essays – one placing it in a cultural and historical context (for which there was a “right” answer), and another that was an emotional reaction to the piece of music. He said that if he couldn’t tell “who” you were from your answer, you would not get a good grade. (I use “who” in quotation marks, as he didn’t mean identify you by name, but identify you as a an individual with a point of view and a history of experiences.) He made it clear that you didn’t have to like the music (or even talk about whether you liked it), but you had to have an emotional and individual reaction to it.

  5. This is such a great continuation of the conversation Martha! On a totally different note, I had completely forgotten about a Professor who put me on blast in front of everyone in a class, and how dumb it made me feel, until you mentioned it here. Looking back from a teachers lens, I can’t imagine ever doing that, and I hope that although some days are better than others that I have never made someone feel that way. On the other hand I haven’t mispronounced “Michel Foucault” since!

    • Funny how that pendulum swings…

      So many interesting ways to mispronounce Foucault, though… I used one of them when my professor publicly humiliated me but there was an F at the end of Foucault….

  6. I used the AI to help write my artist’s statement but it was more like taking a little of this and a little of that and using them to cobble together something that said what I wanted it to… not really using the AI to write the whole thing but more like a word generator!!

  7. Love this rant. What great dialogue you and Carrot had. When I think of inspiring teachers, you come to mind. You’re still a teacher. AI has its place. It just doesn’t have the REAL heart.
    “Writing is thinking. We discover so much when we sit down with our thoughts and allow them to happen.”
    Beautifully stated! 💕❤️

    • I might have retired but I can’t retire. I use AI to help me revise stuff and it’s very helpful, but I still think like a teacher FIRST. “What if they don’t learn!!! OMG!!!! That would be so terrible.” It really would be. It was so hard when I was in the classroom to BACK OFF when it was hopeless (for me). But maybe that’s what makes a teacher… I have no idea. ❤️

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