On the first day of writing class, I often begin by asking my students why they want to become more skillful on the page. I pose this question knowing that many of them have enrolled in the course only because our college requires them to do so, and that they are likely motivated by little more than the desire to graduate. Some students will admit as much. The more ambitious, forward-thinking among them may express the sensible hope that writing will help them in their careers.
When I had this introductory conversation with a class this January, I brought up the topic that is reportedly troubling composition teachers the world over: If a computer endowed with “artificial intelligence” can produce a more grammatically sound, deeply researched, and convincing essay than you can, and is able to do so faster than you ever possibly could, why not rely on the machine to do your writing for you?
A student to my right helpfully raised her voice to claim that writing can enrich our lives in intangible ways—by helping us think more deeply about the world and maybe even by making us feel more alive, more awake to our own experience. Pleased by her optimism, I agreed. Writing, I added, can help us discover what we did not know before putting pen to page; it can lead our thoughts into new territory, each sentence or phrase pulling us toward insight and delight.
It occurred to me then that the rise of the machines is less troublesome than many imagine it to be. It could even make my job easier—by helping students see the act of writing not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself.
Understandably, writing pedagogy tends to place the finished text at the center of our attention. We hold up outstanding essays as models to be emulated and evaluate students according to the merits of completed work. In the minds of most students, the goals of writing are primarily extrinsic: If they can produce appealing essays, they will win favor in the eyes of their teachers, earn good grades, and go on to excel in professional arenas where writing is valued. In this sense, writing is but one tool in the meritocratic competition for which they have been training all their lives.
Artificial intelligence may well subvert this understanding of academic work. If and when machines can “write essays” (though such “writing” would lack the essential spirit of human struggle implied by the French-derived word essay) that are more deftly organized, more thoroughly researched, and more persuasive than our student’s efforts, then writing’s purpose will cease to reside solely in the finished text. It has never solely resided there, of course, but we too often act and teach as if it does.
In an AI-powered world, if we hope to inspire our practical-minded students, we would be wise to describe the act of writing as an intrinsic good. If the purpose of writing is conceived to be merely the production of text, which can be evaluated, scored, and rewarded according to its merits, then savvy students will be easily persuaded to forgo the hard work of crafting their own sentences. They may see little reason not to tap the burgeoning power of AI and save themselves hours of struggle and frustration.
But if we believe that writing’s aim is not to produce texts that win us favor, but to expand and trace the contours of thought, helping us become more adept and intimate with language and with our very selves—perhaps then we have a fighting chance. Then we may, with courage and good faith, convince our students to brave the empty page, deprived of a digital crutch, reliant on their own minds. As they crouch in concentration over the page, pen held lightly in their fingers, and begin at last to write, we can hope that they will find in the swift movements of their hand and thoughts the intrinsic value that has inspired so much of the scribbling upon which tools such as ChatGPT depend.
I recall the wise old woman of Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture: “Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference—the way in which we are like no other life. We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
Every writing class should strive to convince students to do language with as much intelligence and passion as they are able. It should aspire to cultivate a community of learners for whom writing is a daily and necessary habit.
To do so, many educators may need to adjust their methods. Rather than demand that students adhere to rubrics designed to produce formulaic if coherent essays, we should present the technology of writing as an opportunity for discovery, surprise, and play—indeed, as an inexhaustible human resource conducive to our individual and mutual flourishing. As best we can, we should emphasize in our teaching the rich, humanistic potential latent in every blank page. We should present writing not as merely a useful skill, but as a chance to grow ever freer and more felicitous in the stream of language that flows through each of us.
Perhaps, then, the arrival of ChatGPT is cause for celebration rather than angst. At last, we can unshackle ourselves from the chore of writing toward extrinsic benefit and recognize the act for what it has always been—an occasion to bring to fruition our own humble, human intelligence.