Dear students learning to write

Dear students learning to write,

You live in a world full of wonderful technology. Your devices, apps, programs, and entertainments are more useful, more engaging, and more distracting than ever before. Technology is a tool that we can harness to enhance our lives as humans; yet, too often, we let the technology dictate how it directs our lives.

Recently, OpenAI unveiled its newest prototype: ChatGPT-3. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend going and playing around with it. You can ask it questions, you can get it to give full responses, you can get it to explain or summarize something, and you can get it to write essays. I spent quite a bit of time getting to know ChatGPT and it is seriously impressive in what it can do. I think it is a potentially useful resource and a very powerful tool.

However, as with all technology, I see some downsides and I’d like to explore those with you for a moment.

1. The basic output answers that ChatGPT provides are not very good. They may sound knowledgeable to someone uninformed on a particular topic, but anyone with expertise can tell that the content does not go far beyond demonstrating basic comprehension. That’s primarily because the AI does not actually know what any of it means; it is using multiple tools and strategies to string together words into patterns that seem to make sense. Now, it’s very good at doing that, but will not catch its own errors. That’s why it sometimes returns sentences that may sound good but are actually gibberish.

2. Because it does not actually understand any of the content it is producing, errors creep in quite frequently. When asked to write about something well-known, it does well but as soon as something becomes more obscure, it really struggles. I asked it to trace the faith journey of a character in Shusaku Endo’s The Samurai, a text that the AI could not find a digital version of. Pretty much everything it came up with was incorrect and anyone who had read the book would instantly see that.

3. By nature, what it comes up with is formulaic. Some of those structures and formulas are rather well hidden, but the patterns start to become quite repetitive. A lot of teachers of writing have been playing around with this over the last weeks and months and the general consensus is that the writing itself is not very good. It’s wooden, often clunky, and lacking in style. While it is possible to get ChatGPT to write in a particular style, that sometimes backfires like when I asked it to rewrite something in the style of author Cormac McCarthy and it just reorganized some of the wording. To date, it cannot really understand or replicate style, leading to soulless prose.

4. It also can’t really do quotations accurately. It cannot integrate thoughts from others well, often taken things out of context, or misattributing them, or not working them in cleanly. Similarly, it can do generalizations, but in-depth, nuanced commentary or analysis is beyond what ChatGPT can currently do.

5. Finally, a common issue with a new technology: what makes something more efficient, or allows us to be more productive, can also make us lazy. To turn what ChatGPT puts out into actually good writing takes a lot of work; to get it to introduce new ideas, to streamline thoughts, to better integrate something or illustrate it requires both knowledge of the topic and of the conventions of writing. Students hoping to use this as a short-cut to not have to write assignments or understand the process and craft of writing are falling into a trap where efficiency and convenience lead to simplicity and an apathetic laziness.

But, what it does produce under the tutelage of a knowledgeable and already competent writer is quite impressive. So, some students, and even some teachers of writing, are essentially throwing up their hands asking “Why do we even need to learn/teach writing anymore?” As a teacher of writing, my answers all boil down to: it’s the process, not just the product, that matters.

1. Writing is thinking. While you, your parents, and even some of your teachers may not think of it this way, I view my classroom not just as a place to learn reading, writing, listening, and speaking, but as a crucial place to develop critical thinking. It is difficult to teach and even harder to measure, but learning to write well is one of the best ways to learn critical thinking. Our words are a reflection of the patterns of our minds and while speaking can be spontaneous, and much of our digital communication is similarly immediate, it is through extended and purposeful writing that we can shape the pathways of our thinking. When we write for a specific audience, when we play with the order of thoughts, when we discover and implement connections and transitions between ideas, our minds start to apply that elsewhere as well.

2. Writing is expression. In my classroom, a primary focus is on clear communication, being able to express ourselves well in all arenas of life, being able to understand others and their ideas, and being able to synthesize disparate viewpoints. Some of you express yourselves through art, dance, music, or sport. Humans want to take what’s inside them and bring it out into the world and writing is a primary and accessible way of doing that. The value of a text is not just in what it achieves in the readers, but also in the person composing it. I’ve often found that I have a much better idea of what I think, of how I feel about something, of how to live with something difficult after I’ve taken the time to write about it.

3. Writing is nuance. The world is a marvelously complex place. Our minds are in a constant tension between trying to order and make sensible patterns of an overwhelmingly complex world and exploring with curiosity that same beauty and mystery. We need to simplify and generalize some things in order to function, but we also need to appreciate depth and the intricate workings of our surroundings. Pretty much every topic you can imagine is more complex and nuanced than it at first appears. The process of learning to write is a way of exploring that complexity and developing nuanced and thoughtful ways of processing the world. Writing—whether poetry, a short story, a research paper, or a diary entry—help us to take the jumbled, muddled, often inconsistent elements in our minds and bring them into some form of coherence. And we can learn to do this without needlessly generalizing, by maintaining and capturing some of the beauty of the complicated world around us.

So, where does that leave us with regards to ChatGPT and the purposes of learning to write? For one, I suspect the expectations of originality in schools and universities and by many employers will remain intact. This means that using ChatGPT as a shortcut in school will be viewed as plagiarism and there are already ways to determine with decent accuracy whether something was written by AI or a human (these processes also use AI to detect the patterns, such as originality.ai).

But I can think of a few more important reasons to continue to invest our time in the writing process. If we let our minds be replaced by convenient technology now, then we’re putting ourselves in a situation to be replaced by technology later. If you the student make the choice to take the easy way out and never learn to do anything that an AI can sort-of also do, then you’re not learning the crucial skills that may help you be successful in life. If the AI can replace you and your work in the classroom today, it will likely replace you at your job someday. That’s not meant to be a scare-tactic; we live in a world that requires us to be flexible and adapt, especially given new technologies. Gone are the days when we can apprentice as a teenager and then do the same job, unchanged, for the rest of our lives. Most of us will have multiple jobs, careers, and will have to adjust what and how we do those.

In education, we continue to see seismic shifts and it’s very easy to get stuck in an old way of thinking that then does not leaves us equipped to live well in our surroundings. Adaptability is a key skill we all must learn, and we do it by keeping our minds agile and open to new things, by remaining curious, by always being willing to learn and adjust.

And that’s not something you can be forced to do. Some of what you’ll be required to do in life will be jumping through senseless hoops. Sometimes, you’ll perceive a task to be senseless only to later realize its infinite value to the development of who you have become. Writing can be one of those tasks. But, you’re in charge of your own learning. No matter the external environment, the competence of your teachers, the disadvantages or privileges you bring with you into the classroom, only you can really determine what you will internalize.

From a person who does not want to consider who he would be if he had not chosen to spend time and effort on becoming a proficient writer, reader, and thinker, I encourage you to invest in the process of writing. Use the tools at your disposal; hone and guide the shape of your mind. Your learning, growth, and the continued adaptability of your mind is one of the primary things that makes you a human. Remember that you are an individual who matters and that what’s going on inside of you is important and your abilities and desire to communicate those things make the world a richer place.

Sincerely,

Jens Hieber, an English Teacher
January 2023

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