A conversation among Duke Thompson Writing Program faculty about ChatGPT

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In a recent Thompson Writing Program (TWP) faculty meeting, writing faculty members discussed their concerns and opinions about ChatGPT. What follows is a summary of the main themes of that discussion. In general, the discussion was colored by concern but highlighted with hope. 

Please note this narrative is a summary of the TWP faculty discussion and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of all TWP faculty. 

Concerns with ChatGPT 

Many concerns exist with ChatGPT, a new artificial intelligence tool created by OpenAI, which uses a powerful language model that can perform any number of tasks from writing essays to writing and debugging code. Prime among them for instructors is that students will not learn if they rely on a bot to do their work. Communication, including writing, is a skill that students have to learn and practice, so that they can be effective change agents and leaders in the future. More specifically in our Writing 101 classes at Duke, we aim “to provide students with a foundation to learn new kinds of writing, prepare them to identify relevant questions, and articulate sophisticated arguments in their future work, both inside and outside the university.” Writing cannot be mastered if it is not done. 

Another obvious concern is plagiarism. This year Duke required all first-year students to complete an “Academic Integrity” online learning module to help students navigate plagiarism among other infringements. Relying on ChatGPT and using language directly from it may qualify as plagiarism and professors will need to determine new ways to address these instances with students. As writing faculty we are interested in working with students and colleagues in redefining what plagiarism is in this new era. We hope to work with students to understand how we may use ChatGPT as a tool but also monitor its use as a crutch. Please come talk to us! 

Although many concerns exist with ChatGPT, likely one of the most disheartening is the lack of, and possible loss of, artistic thought. Although, yes, good writing has correct grammar and sentence structure, what it possesses most is individual creative process, perspective, and thought. Good writing also helps passionate students express new and interesting ideas and gain a sense of accomplishment. Relying on an AI tool has the potential to transform the beautiful writing of the sentient into a collection of words without the individual, without emotion, without rhythm, without song. As Nick Cave voiced in response to a song written by ChatGPT in the style of Nick Cave, relying on AI to write about the human experience does not capture what writing is for us humanoids: “an authentic creative struggle, the breathless confrontation with one’s vulnerability, one’s perilousness, one’s smallness pitted against a sense of sudden shocking discovery.” Do we want a future without “humanness” in our writing?   

Positives of ChatGPT 

Although the downsides of ChatGPT may be immediately obvious, some advantages may exist.  

Using ChatGPT as a tool 

Using ChatGPT in the early phases of writing, such as the brainstorming, outlining, or thesis writing phase, may be of some use. ChatGPT essays could also be used as a basis for learning how to provide effective peer review or exploring organization, argument, source integration, perspective, and creativity. 

However, relying on ChatGPT too much, even in initial phases, could have its downsides. Writing well requires learning how to synthesize information you’ve learned to create a story. Relying on an AI tool too heavily could inhibit this process.   

In summary, many faculty recognized that ChatGPT could be used as a tool to help with writing. Given its short life on this earth so far, this is an opportunity for students to provide us feedback. We encourage students to talk to faculty about ChatGPT and any possible uses for it.   

Other thoughts about ChatGPT from Writing Faculty 

The calculator didn’t destroy math 

Panic about technology use in the classroom is not new. A similar level of panic became widespread when calculators were first used in math classes. However, calculators can't tell us how to set up a problem initially, interpret and convey results, or give us the intuition to know when an answer is nonsense. The software is a tool; the real challenge is understanding how to use it. 

ChatGPT may become something similar, performing rudimentary tasks so writers can focus on higher-level concerns. To use it, we’ll need to understand how it works and think critically while using it. Thus, the need for conversation among faculty and students is ever more important, to learn how best to use Chat-GPT as a tool that elevates our writing and our thinking. 

Thoughts for Faculty: Navigating ChatGPT 

So how do we, as faculty who use writing in our classes, navigate ChatGPT?  

Fortunately, we may have more tools than we initially thought to detect and prevent writing via ChatGPT. One student at Princeton has already created a bot that instructors can use to detect AI-generated text. But even more important than detection is to consider this an opportunity to strengthen and revisit our pedagogical approaches to facilitate writing development and best practices in the classroom. 

Fostering a love of learning 

One pedagogical goal that most Duke faculty share is to foster a love of learning in their students. A love of learning helps students excel beyond the test, beyond the classroom. Lifelong learning is what makes future community leaders, international diplomats, successful engineers, respected artists, and productive scientists. 

Is ChatGPT-3 a shortcut to an essay? Yes. Is it a shortcut to learning or thinking throughout a writing process? No. Learning is hard. Writing is hard. As writing faculty, it is our job to guide students through these difficult processes and to foster in them a love of the challenge such that they do not desire shortcuts but instead knowledge and to share their perspectives. While this task can be challenging with students who have weathered a pandemic wherein they may not have received quality writing practice in high school, we, as faculty, have an opportunity to address these realities and to prepare our students to succeed. 

Including perspective 

One core principle of inclusive teaching is creating belonging for students in the classroom. Supporting student perspective and encouraging students to bring personal examples into their writing, when relevant for the disciplinary context or writing occasion, can help them connect with the material. Power-sharing models in classrooms also use this concept. By making our writing prompts more inclusive and encouraging student perspective, we may be able to prevent a dependence on Chat-GPT. This task may be more challenging for faculty who teach STEM writing, which can involve a more nuanced author perspective. However, generally ChatGPT may force our hand to be more inclusive – and that would be a wonderful outcome.  

Contextualizing writing prompts 

Chat-GPT “doesn't speak with sentience and doesn't ‘think’ the way people do,” which may offer an occasion to reinforce the value of students caring about their writing. ChatGPT pulls information from sources across the whole internet. However, when students write, they write based on their own knowledge of a topic. Therefore, by contextualizing writing prompts, we may be able to reduce and/or detect the use of ChatGPT. Phrases included in writing prompts, like “Based on what you have learned about this topic in this class so far…” may encourage students to write using their own knowledge set and not someone (or something) else’s.    

Explicit focus on process 

Generally, the most effective writing emerges from scaffolded assignments, with feedback from peers and faculty, and with time for revision across components and drafts. Faculty can facilitate discussion, prewriting and revision in the classroom, and encourage students to visit TWP’s Writing Studio. We can also ask for evidence of the writing process from students, such as graded reflections. 

Navigating a new world with ChatGPT may be challenging in some ways, but it also may provide faculty with opportunities to make their classrooms more inclusive and further improve student writing. If we view ChatGPT as a tool, rather than a threat, maybe (just maybe) a future world with ChatGPT will be a world with more “good” writers. Only time will tell. 

Sarah Parsons, Hannah Davis, Rene Caputo, and Miranda Welsh are members of the Duke Thompson Writing Program (TWP) Faculty.


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