A Silicon Valley endeavor called OpenAI released last fall (2022) their Artificial Intelligence engine, ChatGPT, for free public use, as a way of testing it out and further training it. You can ask ChatGPT just about anything, using natural language, and get an informed, coherent response back. As its name suggests, the engine is built for chatting with humans, holding a conversation that can refine and steer a person’s inquiry until they get just what they’re looking for.
Some educators are alarmed, because the engine is adept at composing what looks like student-produced writing. If you ask ChatGPT to produce a summary of Huckleberry Finn, written in the style of a tenth-grader, it spits out a more-than-passable facsimile thereof. Educators are concerned that students will simply get ChatGPT to write their school assignments, with no way for teachers to detect it.
As a teacher of first-year composition at a university, I decided last Spring to take on the questions and problems raised by ChatGPT in my classroom. The first unit in my course asks students to conduct a rhetorical analysis of a piece of writing, so I decided to make ChatGPT the focus of the unit. I asked students to find and read carefully a handful of articles on the topic—whatever drew their interest from the explosion of online reporting and opinions that had appeared in the preceding months.
After students had familiarized themselves somewhat with the topic, gotten a sense of the range of perspectives out there, and had a chance to think about things, I asked them to analyze an article that I supplied—an informed opinion from an experienced tech writer published in a credible, popular magazine.
This was a rhetorical analysis assignment, so the task for students was not so much to arrive at some defensible position on ChatGPT, but to pull apart, first, what the author said, and, second, how he said it. They used tools of analysis that we had learned in class, primarily examining the authors use of ethos, logos, and pathos to persuade his readers.
The discourse around ChatGPT is just now forming— so the assignment provided an interesting opportunity for students to examine in near real-time how certain voices rise to prominence as a discourse takes shape, what arguments surface, why some points of view gain traction while others do not. The assignment gave my students an opportunity to examine this emerging public conversation at its inception.
However, I also had a longer-range purpose for the assignment. I wanted us to have had a full airing of the ChatGPT question before moving on to the next course unit, when I ask students to write their own extended, research-supported, persuasive essays, not on ChatGPT but on topics of their own choosing. This is the place where generative AI likely makes writing instructors most nervous: the place where students might most be tempted and most readily succeed at getting ChatGPT to do the work for them.
Before launching into that extended composition project, my hope was that we might prepare ourselves for directly confronting some of the central questions ChatGPT raises about student writing—questions about accuracy, authenticity, what might be lost or gained when machines do our writing for us—and most of all, questions of ethics.
In my next blog post, I’ll take a deeper dive into ChatGPT and ethics.
For much more information, visit collegereadywriting.com.
William Bryant, PhD is the President and Co-Founder of BetterRhetor Resources, an educational publishing & services company he and his wife operate headquartered in Prescott, Arizona.
Dr. Bryant has created collegereadywriting.com and authored his signature online writing program, College-Ready Writing Essentials, as well as several other free & paid resources designed to target the college-ready writing gap. He has written for Getting Smart, Curmudgication, and Bright Magazine. and worked for a decade at ACT Inc., lastly as Director of Writing Assessments.
In addition to college readiness, Dr. Bryant writes about education, equity, democracy—and how they fit together. Connect with him on LinkedIn.