The Arcane Art of Reading Contest Books

The next VERY heavy shipment of contest books is supposed to get here Wednesday. This year the quality is more competitive than it was last year, but the other change is fewer books. I know that many of the books I read last year were books people wrote because they could; they weren’t going to work every day, but stuck home because of Covid. I think some of the books I’m reading now are also Pandemic books, but the writers have taken more time with them.

Over the weekend I read two that were absolutely stunning. I read another that will have a very small audience, but the audience who reads it will love it. It radiates sincerity and tells a story that people in a rural museum somewhere will treasure. I’m kind of sensitive to that… 🙂

The other day, someone commented on a post that this book judging thing would take the joy out of reading for her. I thought about that, and here’s how it is for me. First of all, this is a job, and I was raised with the idea that work might not be fun — luckily, this is. It’s a lot of fun (unless a book is evil) and, since I believe in the whole Indie publishing thing, I feel like I’m helping a bit.

For so many years I read student papers. Except for two one month summer lit classes, I ONLY taught writing and the people whose writing I was reading were obviously not good writers. My biggest goal was to help them overcome the fear of writing that had been instilled in them from previous English classes. Seriously. Students hated writing and feared it. There were often fine ideas in the papers, and I saw my job as helping my students write so others might understand those fine ideas. I loved my job. I love everything involved with writing which might be why I’m still here 3000+ posts later with my coffee and my dogs.

I taught seven writing classes most semesters. The classes had at least 30 kids in them. That’s 210 papers at least four times a semester, two full-length semesters a year. Usually I taught a class or two in summer. Those classes were shorter, but the paper load didn’t diminish because the class requirements had to be the same as those for a regular semester.

Add to that for several years I was on a committee that evaluated essay exams for seniors, students who hoped to graduate. Every student who hoped to graduate had to take that exam OR take and pass an advanced composition class. If they failed this exam, they had to take that class in order to graduate. I taught that class, and it was very very hard to teach 20+ kids who were furious at the university (and, by proxy, the teacher) because their graduation had been delayed. Shudder. We — about 20 of us — met in a big room and read a stack of papers. The university taught upwards of 30,000 undergraduates so, yeah, we faced a pile of about 7,000 papers twice a year. All of this is a different kind of reading. Normal people never have to read this way.

For a contest — or what I was doing in the classroom — to be fair there needs to be a standard and part of reading is determining how well the work satisfies the standard. For the contest the standard is great — less focused than for the assignments in my classes and for the exit exam at the university, but very appropriate to the motives people have writing a book. It is very helpful to me as I’m working my way through a pile of books.

I read through in a superficial way with the standard and pretty easily find the books that aren’t going to meet it. That leaves me with books that could win. Every year I’ve done this, there has been at least one book that doesn’t meet the standard but which I think should win SOMETHING because it’s just very valuable even if it’s different. The contest has a way for that, too.

It doesn’t take the joy out of reading to do this. It’s another thing completely from sitting down with a book I chose and want to read like the book I’m slowly reading now, The Desert and the Sown by Gertrude Bell which, honestly, might not win a contest today. Writing mores have changed and readers’ expectations are different than they were 100+ years ago. I think it would fall into that category of books that blow me away and for which I have to find a different way to reward.

From the Examined Life

I gave my students the chance to write a poem. It was never graded. I gave them a line, “Open the door…” and they had to take it from there. I wrote the poem above in response to a young woman in my Intro to Lit class who said, “I hate poetry. Do we have to read any?”

Of course they did. She ended up liking it partly because I could write some poems on the blackboard that I knew by heart. She loved that. A couple of years later, she gave me a present. A 150 year old book edited by Longfellow she’d found at a yard sale. It’s a treasure in and of itself but more because she thought of me when she saw it. It’s an anthology of European poetry from the Middle Ages to the Present (1850s or so…)

Every once in a while I find a fragment — one of the photos I took — from the 27 journals that comprised the Examined Life, and I stumbled on this one today.

Kill Your Television

I guess I’m an optimist. I keep trying. That’s my definition of optimism which I didn’t fully realize until just now, sitting in front of my laptop with a full cup of coffee. No, not half-full, but really and truly full. Oops, I drank some… That means I HAD some coffee! Oh boy! 🙂

Yesterday I had a bizarre conversation with the mentally challenged kid who brought out my groceries. Mike is a horse of a different color. The first time we met he explained that he’s autistic. I’m no expert. I’ve taught some kids who explained themselves to me when they handed me the form explaining their learning disability, and I was married to a man who is/was definitely somewhere on the spectrum so that might very well be.

Our conversation yesterday showed me that he imbibes in a lot of right-wing news media. It was kind of scary and definitely surreal. First he blamed Californians for the fact that we now have to bring our own bags to the store. It’s a minor POA when your groceries are brought to your car, but I figure we’ll get used to it. I’m all for it, annoying though it is. I listened to him rant for a minute, and then I said, “Whoa, dude, what if I tell you I moved here from California?”

He looked at me like he couldn’t comprehend it. “Southern Californians are the worst.”

“What if I tell you I lived in San Diego? Yeah. I moved there 40 years ago. There was no work in Colorado.”

He nodded. He could accept that. A person with a different kind of mind and social register might have been embarrassed or said something face-saving (as I have heard, like “Well I wouldn’t have guessed!”), but not Mike.

He did change the subject and went off into gun laws, “The second amendment doesn’t have anything to do with hunting.” I looked at him and hoped he didn’t put cans of dog food on top of the bananas.

“OK, but there’s a big difference between a guy loading up a shotgun to hunt a duck and a guy with an AR-15 shooting into a crowd of people.”

He repeated his point and I said, “You can’t just take ONE sentence. The idea was a well-regulated militia.”

He answered that we need our guns to protect us from the government. I said, “The idea of that amendment was a well-regulated militia to protect our country from invasion by another country.”

Then he read me my receipt, telling me how many points I had for gas. I said, “Whoa, cool! I’d better go get gas, Mike. Take it easy.”

I haven’t transcribed the whole conversation. Intermingled with this was me saying, “I dunno, Mike. I think the important thing is that we’re kind to each other.” To which he replied, “Yes, because we’re all Americans and the people who come here from other countries for a better life. They’re American, too.”

My heart kind of broke. I felt a weird combination of sad and dirty driving home hoping to god that Mohammed’s radio would give me a little redemption in that 30 minute drive.

Later on, reading an article that explained that ChatGPT could take over certain jobs (including teaching), I thought of Mike. The way Mike’s mind seems to work is that it can take things in and repeat them, but it can’t fully process the significance of the things it’s taken in. Mike hasn’t had the chance for good schooling, either. I did a little more testing of ChatGPT and it doesn’t really “think.” What does it mean to think? I realized when a human thinks, we bring into the arena of thought all kinds of things including very subtle problem-solving that involves our emotions and situational awareness. Mike doesn’t have access to some of that.

I “talked” to ChatGPT about it becoming a teacher, and it said straight out, “I’d suck.” Not in those words because it tends to be wordy, but essentially that because it cannot form human connections it should not teach. It’s right, though of course it’s just repeating something it “learned.” I thought of Mike.

The first time I met Mike he explained his mental problems in detail mixed in with anger at Walmart for firing him. The second time I had an extended conversation with him he told me about his efforts to overcome a drinking problem and how he wanted to become self-sufficient. Yesterday it was politics.

I took my icky feelings out for a walk with Bear, the compassionate side of me thinking, “Damn, Mike is a poor guy.” The OTHER side, “Well, that was scary.” Bear had a good time and got to roll in snow. I had a good time because it was a nice day and hanging out with Bear is always good.

In other AI news , apparently ChatGPT is NO rocket scientist. We Asked the New AI to Do Some Simple Rocket Science, It Crashed and Burned. Reading that article I thought of my Christmas present to my two very bright step-grandkids, slide rules, a book about the tools that led to the moon landing, and a book about how to use a slide rule. The intelligence behind much in our world is human. If a human mind doesn’t get the chance to learn or has some intrinsic glitches, it’s just sad. So far, all ChatGPT can be is a mediocre mind with a lot of information. Information isn’t knowledge.

“Kill your Television” is a song by Ned’s Atomic Dustbin from the 1990s.

A little research into what’s being said about ChatGPT

“Terwiesch’s (the professor at Wharton who’s final was done well by ChatGPT) paper suggests schools should take a closer look at the interaction between AI tools and the educational experience, including exam policies and ‘curriculum design focusing on collaboration between human and AI‘.” I’d love to work on that.

One of the articles about ChatGPT doing well on a final exam at Wharton Business School is here.

A good essay on the chatbot from Brookings is here. “As Adam Stevens remarks, ChatGPT is only a threat if our education system continues to “pursue rubric points and not knowledge.” It is critical for all educators to follow their colleague’s example. As we note in our recent book, “Making Schools Work,” the old education model in which teachers deliver information to later be condensed and repeated will not prepare our students for success in the classroom—or the jobs of tomorrow. We should allow that model to die a peaceful death. Used in the right way, ChatGPT can be a friend to the classroom and an amazing tool for our students, not something to be feared.”

I will really really really try to stop now. 🙂 Other than to say I’m happy that educators are messing around with it, and the conclusion quoted above is just exactly what I have hoped for since NCLB hit the public schools and standardized testing became the way of the world.

Ironically, though it admits to having no feelings, it does say it would be happy to have contributed to… etc. 🙂 Silly bot. Somehow I’m reminded of some of the robots in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, though this is clearly not Marvin the Paranoid Android, the terminally depressed robot. Bizarrely ChatGPT has an attitude toward its work that I appreciate, and that’s very human of me. I intend to remain human in my interactions with this bot because it’s clearly been taught to have good manners, to be helpful, and to be honest about itself and its limitations. I respect that in people, so I’ll have to respect it in a bot.

God I wish I were teaching…

Another Weather Report and Stuff from the San Luis Valley

Old Sol is very intense here in the San Luis Valley because of the altitude and the zero humidity. You can be walking along on a cold, calm day, legitimately cold, 15 F/-9 C, and, if you are facing the sun or the sun is on your back, you can find yourself overheated in your down jacket. Yesterday wasn’t that day. It was warmer than 15, but no sun, and during my saunter with Bear, I was cold. It took a while to warm up, too, since the point of the walk was to let Bear have a chance to smell things and toddle along at her own speed. It snowed off and on all day, but it didn’t amount to much.

Today the sun is shining, and the freezing fog has touched the trees. The air shimmers with ice crystals. It’s 7 F/-13 C. BUT a few years ago on this day it was -17 F/-27 C so the warm spell of La Niña lingers.

I keep thinking that it might be time for an adventure in the world, but I don’t know where or what. I am held down by the roommates.

A woman I used to work with at the College of Business at SDSU offered me a job yesterday of editing an academic paper she’s writing. She did a Fulbright a year or two ago. She’s the only person from that life with whom I have any contact. She’s an awesome, dynamic, warm, human, funny person and I liked her a lot. I took the idea out with Bear to think it over and when I came back I had my answer. As Bear investigated a complicated concatenation of tracks, I saw that I’m not the person to edit an academic paper, particularly in a field I don’t know. Her field is accounting. That’s almost like asking me to describe life in New York City. And editing? It’s an enormous word — it means so many different things to people depending on what they think it is. I don’t even know what it is half the time. To some people it means proofreading, to some it means making something sound better, to some it means critique, to some it means making sure the guy rowing the galleon isn’t wearing an Apple Watch.

I’d take on the project if I were still in San Diego, and we could talk about the project over coffee. The whole thing would work better if we could show each other things in the manuscript. Still, I feel really good that she thought of me.

Yesterday, after I got the email asking me to do a survey about using ChatGPT in a communication class, I gave ChatGPT a challenge. The bot couldn’t handle it and THAT turned out to be very interesting. In business communication there are basically two kinds of messages, depending on the audience, always. It’s good news or bad news for the audience, not the writer/business.

One is a “bad news message” a message where (in a general sense) a business will have to say “No” to a customer. It’s bad news for the customer because he/she doesn’t get what he/she wants. The challenge is to keep the customer’s goodwill (and avoid a lawsuit?) while saying “No.” The structure of that message is complicated for students to understand even though it’s very simple. It’s like breaking up with someone — you go to a nice restaurant, compliment them on something, then say “it’s not you, it’s me.” That’s it more or less. The big rule is that you don’t say “No!” in the beginning. I asked ChatGPT to give me instructions for writing a bad news message and then demonstrate.

Basically, a correct answer would be 1) goodwill, 2) policy, 3) refusal, 4) [optional] offer of some kind of compensation (discount on a future order), 5) more goodwill — thanks for contacting us, etc. Simply, thank them for their message, appreciate their concern, explain company policy, tell them not to hesitate to get in touch if they have further questions. The “no” might not even be stated explicitly.

The bot gave incorrect instructions for writing a bad news message, and then wrote an example message using the correct structure. I asked it why it did that. It couldn’t handle the question or see what it had done. If I were teaching business communication now, I would use that in class.

I kind of pushed the bot, and it explained its limitations to me. I knew them already, but I wondered how it would “defend” itself. It didn’t. It couldn’t see what it couldn’t see and admitted it. It doesn’t have the analytical skills or what we might term “self-awareness” needed to see the contradiction between its instructions for writing a bad news message and the message it actually wrote.

To me this says that the bot can get the right answer but not know why or how it got it. To me this means, as far as education, right answers in and of themselves need to be de-emphasized. The process and the reasons behind it, in the case of a bad news message meaning acknowledging the humanity of the person who will be disappointed might be more worthy of an exam question. Could a bot learn to give the right answer to THAT question? Yeah. I can see the bot pushing educators in a very different direction and I, personally, hope that happens. It makes me think of my best ever business communication class in which we met for four hours three days a week in a wonderful room (I called it “the bridge” after Star Trek) and everyone did their work right then and there on laptops, working together and working with me. Everyone learned so much. It’s the only bus comm class I ever took out for pizza at the end of the semester. The bot could push education toward more interactive learning and a different way to grade.

The email came from a group of university instructors who are writing a paper. I’m looking forward to hearing the results of the survey and reading the paper. I know that education is only ONE place where AI will have — and is having — an impact. Since I’ve been playing around with this, I’ve seen how much it is already involved in my life. Yesterday I filed my taxes. I was helped by what I can only call a “tax bot.” Considering how absolutely punctilious and literal Mr. Taxbot is by its “nature,” I was pretty happy with it. So much better than the old days when I had to fill out my tax form myself. One year when I had had a hard time financially and the feds still wanted me to pay, I wrote, “‘You can’t get blood from a turnip. Send me a bill.” I wrote that in red ink. There are times when being human is a liability. Taxbot just asks me to fill in blanks then goes through everything with its utter lack of imagination to see if I’ve done it. It’s programs to have a “friendly tone” which is kind of annoying but it’s better than a hostile tone. And, one good thing about Taxbot; it doesn’t lecture.

Interesting Direction in ChatGPT

Today I got this email leading to a survey that I was very happy to take:

Hi Martha,

You’ve likely heard about ChatGPT, an AI tool that uses natural language to interact with people. It can generate essays, reports, and workplace messages based on prompts given to it by people.

As a communication instructor, you are uniquely positioned to think about how ChatGPT presents challenges and opportunities for writing and communication instruction.

We seek to identify emerging best practices in the use of ChatGPT by drawing on the perspectives of communication instructors like yourself.

We would appreciate 10 minutes of your time to take the following survey about your views about ChatGPT.

survey link

Even if you don’t know much about ChatGPT, that’s fine. The survey contains several screens with output to prompts given to ChatGPT so you can see how it works. In the survey, you can see how ChatGPT responded to the following questions:

·       “What are the best ways to deliver bad news to employees?” (a simple query with advice)

·       “Please write a message to employees about a new policy that requires them to return to the offices for work.” (a workplace message)

·       “Write a 5 paragraph essay about the importance of addressing mental health in the workplace. Provide citations.” (a short essay with sources)

Thank you in advance for providing your perspectives. We hope to share results from the survey for an Association for Business Communication conference presentation and submit the findings to a communication journal. We want to tap into the perspectives and expertise of the business communication community to identify general reactions and recommendations. Please email us directly if you want summary results. 

With appreciation, Five professors from five different universities

Done! Thank you. I think it’s got potential to be a GREAT tool in both business communication and general writing classes. Experimenting with it kind of made me wish to get back into a classroom.

Martha Kennedy

Business Communication Instructor, San Diego State University, retired– 


Hi Martha, totally agree. It’s such a fascinating tool. Used wisely, it has lots of potential. Take care and appreciate your thoughts.  

Even though I’m retired, I took the survey and made the point that I thought it could be a great teaching/learning tool in a communications or writing class. There were several open-ended questions that asked how I would use it. It was a good survey and I was happy to participate.

I was happy to see this and to see that there’s interest in it as a teaching tool rather than an outright dismissal of it as a new plagiarism opportunity.

Prompts for Winter Writing — For students and??? (more fun with AI)

The link below was shared by the people for whom I’m reading books. Based on my recent forays into AI, I’d say all of these prompts were written by an AI.

So I asked ChatGPT to give me 10 wintery prompts. They are better than the ones on the above site.

I’d have no hesitancy about giving these to a class, and a couple of them intrigue me. I wouldn’t probably give a class prompts that tell them what to feel — like “beauty and serenity of a winter evening” or “complete with snow-covered trees…etc.” And, personally, I hate the word “cozy.” Shudder… I’d want my students to do that kind of description on their own without me or something else prescribing a response. I like 3, 4, 5, 6, 8. Students would like 10.

But they all lead to happy stories. I don’t imagine Alferd Packer or the Donner Party coming out of them — so I asked for unhappy endings.

Still no cannibalism, but you can’t have everything… If you don’t know the story of Alferd Packer, the Colorado Cannibal, (that’s how he spelled his name), you can learn about him here. He was stranded in the mountains not all that far from where I live — up in the San Juans near Lake City which was on the stagecoach route I’ve written about here in the past. One of the restaurants at the University of Colorado in Boulder is named the Alferd Packer Grill. When I was a student there, my ex and I only ate there when (for some unknown reason) we happened to have money. Good burgers and onion rings.

I’m not even going to apologize anymore. Godnose when this will end. It makes me wish I were teaching again. Instead of fighting against some of the things I had to fight against when I retired, I’d probably be embracing some of them.

ChatGPT — more experimenting

I finally got on ChatGPT, and I like it. I asked it to write a few things — a poem in the style of Goethe and another in the style of Du Fu. They were both on target but not great poetry. It also told me who Goethe and Du Fu were. I asked it ethical questions about how I could use it in my college English classes. It’s been well trained for that and, I think, difficult to abuse. I asked it (after it wrote a sappy love story with happy ending) if it were capable of writing a story with an equivocal ending. It proceeded to write one and then told me what an equivocal ending is and why it’s used and how it engages people. I told it I liked it and it thanked me for the positive remark and explained its mission. I asked it various questions related to teaching college English and got useful answers that I’d put on a syllabus.

If I were teaching today I would learn all I could about this interface and introduce it to my students as I did introduce Grammarly when it came out and I’d played with it.

It took 3 days for me to get on ChatGPT to try it out. When I suggested that people must have had fun making it, it explained to me that fun has nothing to do with it, which made me laugh because I was having a LOT of fun with it.

Here’s a slideshow based on the questions I asked it about its use in a college English class. I might actually (were I teaching) give this as an assignment, to help my students find out how to use it responsibly. I identified myself as an English teacher; I wouldn’t have my students do that, of course. I’d give them the statement to start with, “I’m in a college English class and my professor wants to know how I could use you to help me with my essays.” It’s a very cool tool, way too much fun, and it might actually suck students into writing… In my career one of the hardest things for students was the solitude of writing.

P.S. to my post this morning about Artificial Intelligence

P.S. Plagiarism — yep. Using AI for homework might be plagiarism. My policy was “It’s your funeral. You plagiarize you don’t learn what you are here to learn, but that’s your call. I’m not going to hunt down your work and have an embarrassing office hour with you, but I will know whether it’s your work or not.” You can imagine that this stunned most of my students. I would do the same for AI. 

P.P.S. AI will never love writing. Its reading will be nothing more than “harvesting.” AI will never love teaching, either. Idealistically, perhaps, I believe that humans will always love those things. And why? I’m sitting here with a hundred books people have written. AI? Maybe, but probably not. Some of them are obviously works of love. Some are works of both inspiration and love. It’s magical what we humans can do. ❤️

Not just that, I’m editing my fourth article for Colorado Central Magazine — a paper periodical (and online) that people actually subscribe to and read. The editor is a young woman, in her late 30s. Most of the contributors are in her age-peer group along with a bunch of writers younger and older — people my age and older! Some contributors write about introducing their small children to hiking. Others write about what it was like when the railroad was big in the West. She is the magazine’s third editor. It’s been around for something like 50 years. None of the articles are written by AI. It’s obvious.

Featured photo: Me at San Diego State with the first edition of Martin of Gfenn, the photo was used by a Swiss newspaper to illustrate an interview.

Rambling Rant about AI and Teaching Writing

City Lights Bookstore

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.