And coming to terms with “robot writing” might just improve writing instruction, S. Scott Graham writes.
September 2022 was apparently the month artificial intelligence essay angst boiled over in academia, as various media outlets published opinion pieces lamenting the rise of AI writing systems that will ruin student writing and pave the way toward unprecedented levels of academic misconduct. Then, on Sept. 23, academic Twitter exploded into a bit of a panic on this topic. The firestorm was prompted by a post to the OpenAI subreddit where user Urdadgirl69 claimed to be getting straight A’s with essays “written” using artificial intelligence. Professors on Reddit and Twitter alike expressed frustration and concern about how best to address the threat of AI essays. One of the most poignant and widely retweeted laments came from Redditor ahumanlikeyou, who wrote, “Grading something an AI wrote is an incredibly depressing waste of my life.”
As all this online hand-wringing was playing out, my undergraduate Rhetoric and Algorithms students and I were conducting a little experiment in AI-generated student writing. After reviewing 22 AI essays I asked my students to create, I can tell you confidently that AI-generated essays are nothing to worry about. The technology just isn’t there, and I doubt it will be anytime soon. For the aforementioned AI essay activity, I borrowed an assignment sheet from the University of Texas at Austin’s first-year writing class. The assignment asks students to submit an 1,800- to 2,200-word proposal about a local issue. Students usually tackle on-campus issues, advancing ideas like “It shouldn’t be so hard to get into computer science classes” or “Student fees should be lower” or “Campus housing should be more affordable.” For the purposes of the Rhetoric and Algorithms class, I asked students to rely on the AI as much as possible. They were free to craft multiple prompts to generate AI outputs. They were even welcome to use those prompts in their essays. The students were also free to reorder paragraphs, edit out obvious repetitions and clean up the formatting. The primary requirement was that they needed to make sure the bulk of the essay was “written” by AI.