Of course I wrote about AI writing
My new Atlantic essay on ChatGPT and the writer's imagination. Also: The End of Burnout in Korea!
I have a new essay out in The Atlantic about ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence thingy that can generate the kind of writing most people use in their ordinary lives as students, workers, citizens, and friends. The technology is certainly shaking up the world of writing education — or, at least, shaking up writing teachers, who now may be wondering if students will ever turn in another essay they wrote themselves.
In my essay — which I wrote entirely myself, trust me — I try to skirt around the academic-integrity issues and ask why it might be useful to keep on teaching kids to write, even though AI may soon be able to churn out the standard papers kids get assigned in school. Here’s why:
Learning to write trains your imagination to construct the person who will read your words. Writing, then, is an ethical act. It puts you in relation to someone you may not know, someone who may, in fact, not yet exist. When you learn to write, you learn to exercise your responsibility to that person, to meet their needs in a context you cannot fully know. That might sound like a lofty goal for a paper about, for instance, the major causes of the American Revolution. But even that bog-standard assignment can get students to anticipate what another person knows and expects. You wouldn’t write the same essay to a veterans’ group as you would to new immigrants.
Writing is never simply self-expression. It’s expression to a specific audience for a specific purpose. In some cases, like a love letter, a writer knows their audience intimately. In others, the audience is every bit a work of the imagination as a novel’s characters are.
Developing the moral imagination in this way matters because…
the biggest ethical challenges facing residents of rich countries in this century have to do with how we act toward people we can only imagine: climate refugees who (for now) mostly live far away, future people who will inhabit post-Anthropocene Earth, artificial intelligences, and animals whom we see as having a growing scope of rights.
Some might want to say in response to the challenge of ChatGPT, “Time to step up your game, teachers! You need to create more innovative, individualized assignments that prove to kids the value of human creativity!” OK, fine, but haven’t we been hearing that teachers are already grossly overworked? And now they’re supposed to remake everything they know about teaching on top of the already-unsustainable workload they’re saddled with? Someone once said — I think it was the author of this book — that increasing your expectations of workers without improving their working conditions is just going to make them more susceptible to burnout.
That said, there are ideas for writing assignments in the essay, courtesy of UT-Arlington English prof Jim Warren. If you teach, those ideas might be helpful.
Here again is the essay. Yes, it may be behind a paywall for you. But that paywall is what makes it possible for The Atlantic to pay me to write it; editors to improve, fact-check, and polish it; and designers to make it look good. Without the paywall, the essay wouldn’t exist.
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Korean edition of The End of Burnout
The first translation of The End of Burnout — or, as it is known in Korea, 번아웃의 종말 — is now available! Thanks to the good people at Medici Media and to translator Song Seom-byeol for bringing such a beautifully-designed book to a new audience:
You can get this beauty at Arc-N-Book and, presumably, wherever else books are sold in South Korea. The English version is still available, too!
A quick reading recommendation: The religion scholar Vincent Lloyd published two very worth reading essays on the same day last week:
“A Black Professor Trapped in Anti-Racist Hell,” in Compact
“The Political Agenda of African American Studies,” in Rampant
One of these pieces got much more attention, and much more criticism from multiple ideological directions, than the other. Can you guess which one? Don’t read one without the other.
Together, I think these pieces are saying that the critical, political academic field of African American studies, which was born of the campus protests of the 1960s, has fractured and gone in two very different yet equally dissatisfying directions. On the one hand, its academic task has been reduced to African American history (of the sort, Lloyd notes in the Rampant essay, you find in the debate over AP African American studies in Florida and elsewhere), and on the other, its political task has become the “anti-racist workshop” approach Lloyd describes in the Compact essay.
I read Lloyd as suggesting that — you guessed it — an aggressive knowingness has infected a segment of those who practice anti-racist education via the workshop approach. That is, for these practitioners, all the answers are already known in advance, and those who don’t already-know them are to be shamed and shunned. There is no room for actual learning. Whereas an academic seminar of the sort Lloyd tried to teach is a slow-paced, fairly open-ended exploration, he writes, “the worst sort of anti-racist workshop simply offers a new language for participants to echo—to retweet out loud.”
I know Lloyd a bit professionally and respect him a great deal. The criticism he is getting is disappointing but perhaps not surprising. He’s a brilliant and humane scholar who’s striving after appropriate nuance while also sticking to worthy moral and political ideals. And people are hammering him for it.
Note that I don’t regularly read either Compact or Rampant (Crampact?). So I won’t say, “I can’t believe he published in…” I don’t care where he published. In fact, I had never even heard of Rampant before. I regret to inform you that I found both of these pieces via Twitter, the very site where the most unfair discussion of the articles was taking place.
There really really needs to be a way to see what smart people like Lloyd are writing without wading into the toxic mire of all the charlatans’ and trolls’ opinions about it. We used to be a country, you know, a proper country. We had Google Reader.