So far, in our discussions of artificial intelligence chatbots for student writing and the teaching of writing, there has been a key missing piece. It has to do with the role of optimism in teenagers' lives. Its absence points to our emotional impoverishment as parents and adults and to some reasons why our youth today are so depressed.
Chatbots are online artificial intelligence sites that, as the New York Times explained on Jan. 16, generate "eerily articulate and nuanced text in response to short prompts, with people using it to write love letters, poetry, fan fiction — and their schoolwork."
Already, Chat GPT — the brainchild of the artificial intelligence lab Open AI — is in use by some college students to write term papers. No one knows how often students are using chatbots, or how to unerringly sniff out the presence of chatbot prose.
Chatbots have "upended some middle and high schools," according to the Times, with some major school districts blocking the tool from their Wi-Fi networks."
The fact is that students can easily find workarounds to access ChatGPT. And Google will deploy their own chatbot in mere weeks.
Good god. These "advances" hit me right where I live.
After graduating from the Stanford School of Education and earning my teaching credential, I taught English in Silicon Valley for 15 years. Yes, for thousands of hours, I was the only adult in classrooms crammed with 20-30 lively freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. I sat at my students' sides to cheer them on with their essays — during class, at brunch, at lunch, after school. Each meeting of our minds offered an occasion for joy.
The typical teenage mind is a fearsome place! It is impetuous, tripping over itself with ideas, tied up in knots, soaring and then crashing and burning. In short, it is a mess. But this points the way toward one of the distinct virtues of the standard expository English essay. You probably remember this essay as that rack you were once stretched upon: introduction, thesis statement, supporting paragraphs with topic sentences, conclusion. The expository essay adamantly confronts the teenage mind, forcing good sense, and bringing order out of chaos. Where there had been irrelevancies, now all is relevant. Where the thesis was in a fog, now the fog has lifted. Where the paragraph-order seemed helter-skelter, now the writer leads us one logical step at a time toward his or her crowning, complex insight. And the prose is now polished, grammatical, subtly cadenced.
The use of an AI chatbot for help with this developing artistry is not only a fraud upon the reader; it is a fraud upon the writer.
My memories of writing English essays when I was in high school are vivid. Usually I put off writing them until Sunday, because they were so hard — and scary. "But out of this nettle, danger," as Shakespeare would say, "we pluck this flower safety." From a mosaic of colored note cards on my desk — all of them scribbled with shot-in-the-dark ideas (And stay with me, O muse!), possible thesis statements (Whew, Eureka?), quotations from the literary work (Yes, gotcha!), even more relevant quotations (Even more yes!), possible topic sentences (brains are untangling!). With some arduous rearranging and winnowing, I gradually extracted a full-fledged, orderly, well-defended, unified high school expository English essay and typed it up on my grandmother's old Smith-Corona typewriter to get a better look at it in its entirety. The type was dark with the gusto of my feelings. "O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!" as Lewis Carroll once wrote. My joy was unbounded! I had slain the dragon. I had wrestled my incoherent ideas into a meaningful whole that spoke to the capacity of my expanding mind and pointed toward my emerging maturity. Oh, cool!
Why would we want to deprive our young people of such joy? Why would we ask them to hand over to a machine, a mere bot, the myriad tasks that make the expository essay one of the best proving grounds for a young mind? Why would we want to sabotage our kids with the unspoken message: "You're not capable of this. Get your thesis statement and arguments out of a bot, then pad it out out with some material from further online sources of plagiarism such as CliffsNotes, SparkNotes, Schmoop!"
With chatbots, kids will leave writing until the last moment; a huge arms race of cheating will be on; stiff, technical, colorless prose will be normalized. Believe me, this is a spirit-crushing game we are playing.
Introducing the use of AI bots, and cavalierly erasing yet another source of high school joy — the sense of one's own creative, insightful, and maturing voice on the page — will only deepen the dejected climate in our schools.
Let's not smother our kids' originality; let's let it breathe.