Opinion: The college essay is not dead


In a guest column today, Matthew Boedy, an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia, discusses the development of artificial intelligence programs that can spit out accurate and fluid essays in response to any prompt.

Boedy is responding to a column in the Atlantic by English teacher Daniel Herman who writes of the new OpenAI’s ChatGPT program that “may signal the end of writing assignments altogether — and maybe even the end of writing as a gatekeeper, a metric for intelligence, a teachable skill...But most jaw-dropping of all, on a personal level: It made quick work out of an assignment I’ve always considered absolutely ‘unhackable.’ ”

In another Atlantic essay on sophisticated generative AI, novelist and essayist Stephen Marche writes: “Practical matters are at stake: Humanities departments judge their undergraduate students on the basis of their essays. They give Ph.D.s on the basis of a dissertation’s composition. What happens when both processes can be significantly automated? Going by my experience as a former Shakespeare professor, I figure it will take 10 years for academia to face this new reality: two years for the students to figure out the tech, three more years for the professors to recognize that students are using the tech, and then five years for university administrators to decide what, if anything, to do about it.”

Here is Boedy’s take on whether AI programs endanger writing and writing instruction.

By Matthew Boedy

It’s that time of year when I read reflections by my students in my first year writing course. This course is part of a mandated two-semester program and is populated by many dual enrolled students.

By and large, they praise the class and my teaching. Though I suspect at times some are merely buttering me up for a better grade. But I also ask them to reflect on how my ways with reading and writing compares to their high school experiences.

Credit: Peggy Cozart

Credit: Peggy Cozart

The overwhelming claim by these “cream of the crop” students about their high school experience is twofold. First, they are often assigned little to no writing beyond one to two pages. Second, the mechanical or formulaic teaching of writing they received often meant they learned nothing of consequence.

I can’t vouch for the complete veracity of those claims. But I bring this up because of two paired headlines racing across the parts of the internet recently where teachers like me meet: “The End of high school English” and its companion, “The College Essay Is Dead.”

On the website of the Atlantic, both muse about the impact of a new technology called ChatGPT which is an artificial intelligence software that can create essays that sound as good or better than the run-of-the-mill ones I read on a regular basis from students.

The basic claim of mortality here is that this software is the greatest plagiarism program of all time. And people like me still assigning essays will only get from this point on prose produced by a robotic output of what people in the AI business call language production algorithms. I won’t bore you with examples but basically not only can you ask the algorithm to write an essay on any topic but also in the style of any famous author. As if sounding like Hemingway gets you extra points.

Let me dispel any notion that the college essay is dead or that this new technology will end my career as a writing teacher.

Contrary to popular belief, we writing teachers believe more in the process of writing than the product. If we have done our jobs well and students have learned, reading that final draft during this time of year is often a formality. The process tells us the product will be amazing.

Writing is a process of learning not merely about a subject. It’s also a learning about how that subject can best be framed for an audience. It’s also a writer learning about themselves. What do they want to say? What do they want to sound like? What rhetorical tools best fit their own skill set?

Asking an algorithm to make you sound like Hemingway actually will raise the reddest of red flags for me for plagiarism because the paper doesn’t sound like a first-year student.

On that note, if we writing teachers are doing our job well, we are crafting assignments that simply can’t be plagiarized. That is, an essay for my assignments can’t be bought off the internet or created by an algorithm. For example, I ask students to write an essay about three to five pictures of their own choosing. Sure, students can and do select pictures from the internet. But many don’t, instead using pictures from their phone. And coming up with things to say thematically about those pictures can’t be done by an algorithm. Another assignment is a research essay where I give students two sources and they have to find two others. The plagiarism I find most now is students stealing from the examples I show from previous semesters or other students in the class when they post early drafts to a class discussion board.

But for the writing-to-learn process to work, students also have to do their jobs. They have to be willing to fail, to write badly, or simply admit they don’t know what to say. And that is extremely hard if indeed they have never been asked to fill a blank page with little to no guidance from the teacher. To think as they write, not already have thought and then write.

And yes, that initial failure does bring the temptation to cheat. But what I hear from students in these end-of-semester reflections is not the siren song of plagiarism but a fear of failure. Because many of these students have never failed.

And for the other students who all they have known is failure with writing, this process only reinforces that sense of dread.

The answer to that is not an algorithm but advice. It’s why I have conferences with my students roughly every two weeks.

This new technology may indeed be the end of high school English. A certain kind of high school English. And a certain kind of college essay.

But it isn’t the death of the kind of education you should expect from our state’s higher education institutions. It’s the opportunity to show why we need more faculty, not less. Why we need less students per class, not more.

The cost of college has exploded due to one sizable factor – the death of public support. Lawmakers think tuition is the burden students should pay to have skin in the game.

But we all as a collective have skin in this particular composition game because good writing is that key fundamental civic skill, one we so desperately need more of. And it must be and should only be taught by those who see it as learning, not keyboard strokes after learning.

Even the algorithm agrees. I asked ChatGPT “What is the best way to teach writing?” I don’t have space to share its whole answer. But it suggests “clear and detailed feedback,” helping “students develop their own writing process” through revision practice, and working to “encourage creativity and originality in students’ writing.”

Maybe though it is just telling me what I want to hear. Like some of my students.