Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The Death of the Essay? I Think Not.


There has been a raft of articles in the last few weeks about ChatGPT and the threat that it supposedly represents to high school and college teachers. There's been much weeping and gnashing of teeth about how the threat posed to academia by artificial intelligence. The titles of many of the articles tend to be alarmist: "The End of English!" "The Essay is Dead!" Teachers are quizzing one another about What Is To Be Done. How will we be able to tell if the students are cheating? Do we go back to making students write essays by hand? Should we just stop having students write at all?

All of this hand-wringing is symptom of a much deeper set of problems that has been around since long before the advent of ChatGPT. And those problems have to do with 1) the ways in which schools have historically been teaching writing, 2) the purposes for which student writing have been employed, and 3) the lessons that students have been absorbing after being subjected to those practices.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that most teachers treat the essay as an evaluative instrument. The purpose of assigning an essay is to put the student in the position of being able to demonstrate whether or not s/he has learned something that the teacher has determined to be of importance. Not only is the content prescribed, but the form as well. Particular attention must be paid to the shape of the essay and to each of the paragraphs within it. The classic model is the five-paragraph thesis essay, a genre of writing that is not valued and pretty much does not exist outside of the confines of the classroom. (If you are in doubt about that, pick up any copy of Best American Essays published in the last twenty years and see how many five-paragraph thesis essays you find.)

In many cases there are other arbitrary rules. The writer must affect a kind of disembodied professorial objectivity. No use of the pronoun "I." No forms of the verb "to be." Each paragraph must have a topic sentence with the following sentences offering supporting details. And so on. Students who follow these rules are rewarded with A's, which they take to mean that they are good at writing. Students who don't follow the rules are penalized with low grades, which they take to mean that they are not good writers. Both conclusions are demonstrably wrong. But that is not the fault of the students, it's a fault baked into the system.

So what's wrong with the system? The problem is that it starts with a narrow, transactional view of writing and hammers it home early and often. Many students have, by the time they reach middle school, become convinced that the ONLY reason one would ever choose to write is when required to do so by a teacher. A student who has interiorized that attitude toward writing is exactly the kind of student who would be delighted to be able to turn over the grunt work over to a robot. 

I worked with a first-year teacher some years ago who shocked our English department by objecting to the school's plagiarism policy, on the grounds that he himself had plagiarized often in college, because he saw plagiarism as a very effective time management device. And if you squint at it just right, you can see the logic of his position. "I've a lot of demands on my time. Some of the things I have to do are getting in the way of the things I want to do. So why shouldn't I budget my time accordingly?" The simple fact was that he didn't see writing as something valuable for him, but only as something valuable for the teacher.

I spent most of my career as a middle school and high school English teacher trying to give students a different sense of the purposes and possibilities of writing. Part of that effort is of course to make the principled case that writing is ideally something that you do for yourself, in order to teach yourself how to think more clearly and more deeply about whatever it is that you actually do care about. Ask a room full of students of an age whether there is anyone who believes that it's better to be a thoughtless person than a thoughtful person, and it's unlikely you'll get any takers. I've asked that question every year, and I've never had any.

So what does writing have to do with thoughtfulness? A lot, as it turns out.

First of all, as almost all those who write regularly because they choose to understand, writing is generative of thought. Students assume, largely because their teachers have repeatedly told them so, that you must know what you are going to say before you write. (Teachers teach outlining for exactly this reason, and many require students to have an outline before they begin an essay or even a story.) But from my own personal experience, and from the testimony of many many writers, that is exactly wrong. If you already know exactly what you are going to write, there's not much point to writing it. On the other hand, if you simply make it a point of discipline to regularly put pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard) and see what happens, you will often find yourself writing something you would never have thought of outside the context of the act of writing itself. If you are very lucky, you will find yourself writing something that comes as a complete and pleasant surprise to you.

Every year I ask the students in my classes how many of them have had the experience of having what they thought was a good idea and then finding, when they try to write it out, that it's not coming out so well. All the hands go up. Then I ask How many of you have had the experience of sitting down to write and having the writing turn out to me much better than what you had anticipated it would be, so much so that it fills you with surprise and happiness? Once in a great while a hand or two will go up, but not often. And that's a shame. Because the reason most students have never had that experience is that their teachers have never provided them with the opportunity to do so.

A second reason that writing fosters good thinking is that writing makes thinking hold still, which allows you to reconsider and re-evaluate your first thoughts and at least potentially find your way to second (and maybe third or fourth) thoughts. Once you have something on paper that will hold still long enough for you to consider it, opportunities arise for you to revise your writing for the better. One of my favorite articulations of the power of re-vision is from David Huddle, in his excellent essay "Let's Say You Wrote Badly This Morning":

Revision is the hope you hold out for yourself to make something beautiful tomorrow though you didn’t quite manage it today.  Revision is democracy’s literary method, the tool that allows an ordinary person to aspire to extraordinary achievement.

I especially like that he links the revision of writing—and thinking—to the idea of democracy. A well-informed, well-read, thoughtful citizenry is at the heart of the whole notion of democracy. If people do not think clearly and do not understand what they are defending (or more often, these days, attacking), then democracy itself is in trouble. Q.E.D. (Yes, I am aware that he was not using "democracy" in its overtly political sense here, but the parallel still holds.)

The salient point, Allen Ginsburg notwithstanding, is that first thoughts are in fact very rarely best thoughts. I believe it's critically important for teachers to encourage students to put their first thoughts into words. But that's only one step in a multi-part process that might involve any number of followup steps. One that I often have my students rehearse is to ask them, once they have written something that they think works, to write at the bottom of the page, But there's another way of looking at it, and then go ahead and try a counter-argument on for size. The ability to shift your point of view and consider lines of thought different than your own is perhaps the single most important critical thinking skill students can be encouraged to develop. So why don't we give them practice in doing that?

Another very instructive followup step that students can benefit from practicing is simply to take something they have written—an essay, a poem, a story, whatever—and set out to cut it by twenty percent. The operative thinking and writing skill here is concision. If you can say the same thing in 240 words that you were saying in 300, that's a gain in forcefulness and clarity. It doesn't matter, really, whether you hit twenty percent on the head. What is important is that at some point in the writing process you spend time weighing each sentence, each phrase, each word and asking yourself Is this necessary? This is how one can become more thoughtful about what one writes.

Of course, none of what I am advocating for here makes any sense at all if you are simply trying to get an assignment—an assignment that you did not ask for and do not care about— over with.

I read a lot of commentary by teachers now about how they are going to have to change the prompts they are giving in order to make it harder for students to cheat. Well, how about this for a prompt?

Every Tuesday and Friday I would like you to hand in a "writing sample" that you have written on any subject that interests you. It can be in any form or genre you like: a literary essay, a personal narrative, a story, one or more poems, a dramatic skit, a chapter of a novel. The only constraints are that 1) it should be your own, current work (going back and pulling old pieces of writing off the computer is not acceptable) and 2) that it should represent a minimum of 20-30 minutes of time on task. Be aware of the fact that some of your classmates will do more.

I have employed this exact prompt for more than thirty years. The writing that resulted varies wildly from student to student. I do not attempt to "grade" these pieces of writing; I simply give the students written and verbal feedback about what I saw developing on the paper. Some teachers are entirely freaked out by the prospect of having students doing all different kinds of writing all over the place. How am I supposed to evaluate it? they cry. But now we're back to writing primarily as a vehicle for assessment. One obvious response to the question is to accept the fact that not every piece of writing needs to be assessed or revised. Revision begins with selection. Once a student has five or ten pieces of writing on file it makes all the sense in the world to ask them to pick one that they feel good about and work on it some more. And that's where any feedback they might get from their peers or from the teacher may be useful and relevant. Otherwise they write, they get a grade, and it's over with. No further thinking required or expected.

My purpose in using an open-ended prompt of this kind is to get myself as a teacher out of the position of being the one to determine what it is important to write, how it is to be written, and whether it is worth further revision. Making those kinds of decisions in advance for students has the effect of crippling their ability to think and write on their own.

Some years ago, an educational consultant named Everett Kline came to the school where I was teaching to speak to the faculty on the subject of "authentic assessment." At that point, I had been teaching for more than 25 years. Like most teachers, I had throughout my career put in an inordinate amount of planning time into designing assessments, none of which were particularly well received by the students. What Kline said literally blew the circuits in my brain. He said, "If you want to know what students know and what they can do, why don't you ask them?"

I spent the second half of my teaching career exploring the implications of that very simple and very powerful question. The prompt I wound up with above was one of the moves that I made in that direction. (There were others.) One of the unanticipated benefits of allowing the students to write what they wanted instead of what I wanted—at least some of the time—was that these "writing samples" gave me a great deal of insight into how their minds worked individually. I got to know what students were thinking and how they were thinking in ways that would never have happened had I been a traditional teacher in a traditionally organized class. That made me a better teacher, and I believe it made them better students.

And here's my point with regard to artificial intelligence: if students are given the chance and the encouragement to write in their own voices about what really matters to them, what possible reason would they have for wanting a robot to do that work for them?  It's not about AI signalling the death of writing. It's about giving students the chance to write about things they care enough about not to cheat.







No comments: