ChatGPT and AI in general have generally caused many to worry about the implications of the technology for many aspects of human life; it has also caused a great deal of concern in higher ed about how or whether students will begin to rely on the technology to do their work for them. This latter concern only deepened when it was reported that a lawyer had submitted a motion that was composed by ChatGPT (Weiser, June 8, 2023). After all, if a professional uses it, why wouldn’t students try to decrease their workload by turning to AI to help them, even if it constitutes plagiarism? Interestingly, since this case was reported, ChatGPT apparently stopped providing research papers (and other research documents) on demand. As we all now know, the program did not actually access real sources, but made them up in the research papers it generated (which is why the attorney is in so much trouble—his motion cited legal cases that did not exist). Also, there are, of course, programs available out in the world to help detect plagiarism and even AI-generated content, some of which are more effective than others, but the issue that is often overlooked is the fact that there are some healthy ways AI can be used in effective writing pedagogy.
ChatGPT can be helpful at two ends of the writing process: invention and editing. Perhaps the least questionable way to use the program, though, is for editing purposes. We already have Spell Check in Microsoft Word, however, so ChatGPT’s effectiveness in editing might be a bit of a moot point. Like Spell Check, ChatGPT can possibly insert grammatical and contextual spelling errors into a paper, so its usefulness is somewhat diminished. In other words, it still requires a human brain to make sure that the program’s suggestions are contextually appropriate. Perhaps more questionable, though, would be the use of ChatGPT to help students generate topics for more open-ended writing assignments.
As an example, I asked the program to provide me with some ways to approach leadership, ethics, and current events. It gave a long list of solid potential topics. Some might argue here against the use of open-ended assignments (which I don’t particularly like to use, but which students do like) or against the idea that a program would come up with the ideas for a student to use. If we think about it more carefully, though, we can realize that we often brainstorm with students about the particular topics students will use in their papers. These kinds of discussions don’t constitute plagiarism, nor should a list of potential topics that a student would then have to develop on their own.
This kind of use comes with a caveat, however. Instead of just letting students run with whatever topics the program might come up with, it would be more pedagogically useful for their instructor to generate the list in class and then initiate a discussion on the degree to which the topic(s) would be effective for that assignment. In fact, the usefulness of ChatGPT in a healthy writing pedagogy currently resides in how the instructor integrates it into teaching and fruitful discussion, as students left to their own devices don’t necessarily have the willpower to avoid using, verbatim, the text that the program generates. Using ChatGPT to help generate possible topics is one effective way to bring students and instructors together in using the technology.
Another way that the technology could be used effectively to introduce an assignment (or work on it in the early stages of the writing process) would be for the instructor to use ChatGPT to bring up the features of the writing genres that the assignment will require. Since ChatGPT is very general in its responses, this means that the teacher will need to “fill in the gaps” on his or her expectations in this regard (and others). Teachers of writing know how important the clear articulation of expectations for the writing assignment is. Indeed, many instructors who are NOT writing specialists may believe that students should already know how to write in a given genre, when in reality, the instructor has highly specific expectations for writing in that genre which may be based on his or her own preferences, rather than anything to do with the genre itself. In other words, the instructor might be making assumptions that are just not true. Using the program in this way would help the instructor be clearer with writing expectations by disassembling those faulty assumptions.
Thus, the use of ChatGPT, like any other technology, comes with both negatives and positives. We certainly don’t want students to rely on AI to author their papers, not only because we frown on plagiarism, but also (and more importantly) because that would cause the students to NOT learn what they need to learn: how to do it themselves. (After all, ChatGPT is drawing from the internet in its responses, and do we really want students merely to regurgitate what’s “out there”? ) I assume we all want students to expand their critical thinking abilities as they expand their ability to write well, and AI can play a role in that. It just requires us to help students use the technology in such a way as to enhance their learning rather than hinder it.
Weiser, Benjamin. “The ChatGPT Lawyer Explains Himself.” New York Times. Online at