By Jennifer Fletcher
The tweets, emails, and articles I’ve read the past few weeks in response to the launch of ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence chatbot that generates readable prose in response to almost any writing prompt, seemingly should have me tossing and turning in my bed. Educators have warned about a tsunami of plagiarism and the end of high school English classes. New apps are rapidly being developed to detect AI-generated homework. But I’m not bothered, as the British would say.
My lack of worry can be explained by the view of John Warner, a view I wholeheartedly share. Warner is the author of Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and an incisive critic of prescriptive writing instruction and standardized testing that reduce composition to its surface features. Warner has repeatedly argued against training students to produce imitations of writing rather than engaging them in processes that result in authentic written communication. Here’s Warner in a Twitter thread from early December:
Later in the thread, Warner explains that the decontextualized, rule-based approach driven by high-stakes testing results in student writing that is “divorced from any kind of rhetorical situation with a defined audience, message, and purpose”–writing, in other words, that could be generated by a machine.
Now that the bots are cornering the market on simulated writing, perhaps it’s time to leave the step-by-step formulas to the software engineers and focus instead on helping students create original content for real social purposes. What matters, now more than ever, is meaningful and ethical communication between human beings.
Taking an Inquiry-Based Approach to Writing
Authentic written communication begins with inquiry. Whether that inquiry takes the form of our lived experience, class discussions, or reading and research, we start by finding a reason to write, something to say, and a conversation to join (not necessarily in that order). This is a big part of what distinguishes the genuine article from the fakes.
However, in addition to the pressure from standardized testing that Warner describes, the mess and frustration of authentic composing processes can often push teachers to look for more expedient ways to teach writing. Inquiry is time-consuming, labor-intensive, and uncertain. We have to be prepared for some productive struggle–both our own and our students’–if we kill the five-paragraph essay and similar formulas.
After and Before
To illustrate this point, I’d like to share a snapshot of what my classroom looks like after I switched to more of an inquiry-based approach to writing. These are all comments that students have said or written in reflections:
“Why are you making us do this? This is hard.”
“It’s too early in the morning for this.”
“It looks like a rainbow of mess.”
“I get stressed about it. I cry. Then I try to narrow things down.”
By giving students more space to do their own thinking and make their own choices as readers and writers, we’re significantly increasing the cognitive load, and that means more frustration and confusion.
I still sometimes feel tempted to rush in and solve their problems for them when I see my students struggling. And that’s what I did as a new teacher. This is what my “before” looked like.
When I first started teaching, my default response to struggle was to hand students a template or outline to follow. I felt like I needed to do something to help students finish the assignment, but I wasn’t really thinking about what students were learning from the assignment or the underlying purpose of my scaffold. There are still lots of scaffolds out there that promise to take the stress and guess work out of writing instruction. Search any marketplace for educational products and you’re likely to see blurbs like these:
“Do your students have trouble writing paragraphs? Worry no more!”
“Take the guesswork out of writing!”
“Make life easier for you and your students”
On the surface, my “after” probably looks worse than my “before.” When we contract the inquiry space by giving students formulas and lists of instructions to follow, their writing often looks instantly better–like one of those miraculous home makeovers that appear to effortlessly transform a cluttered space into a perfectly organized room.
Indeed, this is exactly the kind of cosmetic filter that algorithms for language composition can provide. But this is faux writing, not rhetorical problem solving since the problem of how to respond to the rhetorical situation as been taken away from writers.
Students need to see the mess to understand the work behind the finished product. We have to be willing to invite mistakes, inefficiencies, and ambiguities when we take an inquiry-based approach. And we do this because we’re pursuing a larger goal than just success on a single, school-based task. Inquiry-based instruction prepares students to succeed in an unpredictable future. It helps them to develop their own theory of communication–a set of principles rather than rules–that informs the choices they make about content, structure, and style in unfamiliar situations.
Developing Conceptual and Conditional Knowledge
Transfer of learning is the adaptation and application of knowledge and skills in new situations. About ten years ago, Elon University hosted a seminar on critical transitions in which around 45 writing studies scholars met to study writing transfer. In the subsequent publication of their findings, the Elon Statement on Writing Transfer, the group made several recommendations to teachers, including focusing “on [the] study of concepts that enable students to analyze expectations for writing and learning within specific contexts” (2013). These include rhetorical concepts such as genre, purpose, audience, and context.
If we want to move students toward independence, we need to help them develop the understandings and dispositions that enable them to enact their own inquiry process. Building student’s conceptual knowledge promotes their growth and autonomy, but students also need conditional knowledge, or knowledge of what to do when. The National Research Council notes that experts are “good at retrieving the knowledge that is relevant to a particular task” (43).
If we’re not helping students to analyze different rhetorical situations and genre conventions and to work to understand the values and practices of different discourse communities, then they can develop a fixed sense of what “good” writing looks like instead of the understanding that good writing looks different in different contexts. This is a distinguishing characteristic of the “academic” and “professional” prose I’ve thus far seen generated by ChatGPT: the text narrowly conforms to standardized English and white language conventions.
Before and After
I want to close with one more before-and-after snapshot–this time, the difference between a novice learner and an expert learner. See what you notice:
Like algorithms, novices depend on a list of instructions to tell them what to do next. Experts, however, have their own flexible, situated processes for doing their work. Expert communicators demonstrate a level of rhetorical agility and linguistic versatility that at present is far beyond the reach of language model programs.
The rise of artificial intelligence to is wake-up call for our profession. Rather than seeing AI as an end to the world we know, we can view it as a reason to return to what we value. Ideas, relationships, human agency–these are the pillars of authentic communication. Real acts of composing are situated within complex discourse communities that don’t follow the rules of algorithms. We can be dismayed by new tools for plagiarism, or we can get out of the business of teaching students to mimic the surface features of composed texts while perpetuating dominant language conventions that marginalize other ways of knowing and being. I say let the machines run their simulations. Our work is elsewhere.
Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JenJFletcher.
Elon Statement on Writing Transfer. 2015. Web. 19 Dec. 2022. <http://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/elon-statement-on-writing-transfer/>.
National Research Council. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. National Academy Press, 2000.