Confronting AI, Part the First

In comes this email on my Higher-Ed.-In-Prison Google Groups listerv: “Wondering about the ways HEP can be both empowering and oppressive? Here’s an AI-generated essay on the topic.”

“What Was I Scared Of?,” Dr. Seuss

Now, I’ve been laboring over an article on this same topic since January of 2020. Currently titled, “Liberators in Theory, Collaborators in Deed: It’s Time to Change the Narrative on Higher Education in Prison,” it clocks in at around 5,000 words, and has gone through a series of edits, re-submissions, and perfecting of citations. (If you thought English professors were fussy, try working with the Modern Language Association.)

Anyway, the linked post begins with something of a disclaimer:

This essay was produced by Christopher Beasley, PhD using OpenAI’s ChatGPT. These essays are intended to surface knowledge as well as spark conversation about higher education during and after prison as well as the use of AI in communication. Although I’m responsible for the questions posed and some direction of the content, the content contained and writing are not mine, nor is content original to OpenAI. I make no claims as to the accuracy of the factual content.

One could disagree with the use of “essay” for AI-generated content, but that’s a philosophical question for another day. What I want to do is parse the thing.

Colin J. Fleming has a post at the web site of the Royal Ontario Museum—”AI Made This. Will It Remake the Future of Art, Too?“—discussing this image, made by Midjourney in under two minutes:

“For my image,” Fleming writes, “I wanted to see how well the program mimicked distinct art styles. So, I gave it the prompt ‘Chinese literati painting of white clouds and red birds…Even a cursory glance at traditional literati paintings will tell you Midjourney didn’t exactly nail it. The image appears to be made from oils, not inks, and the birds are, well, faceless.”

What was the prompt for the HEP piece? How did the AI respond? What might it already have “known” about English syntax and academic conventions? Do the birds have faces? Let’s take a look, starting with the title. [All emphasis added. Also, since there seems to be a lot of panic in the academic world over this kind of thing. I am looking at it from that perspective.]

HEP: Empowering & Oppresssing

Classic academic title format. I use it myself, and teach it to my students. (I already used it in this post.) However, the part before the colon is supposed to grab your attention, while the part after the colon presents your actual, more formal, title. “HEP” is not catchy; I doubt very many people even know what it means. The ampersand in the second part feels a bit too casual for the topic.

The Introduction is fine, but reads like an Abstract:

Higher education in prison has the potential to be both empowering and oppressive, depending on how it is implemented and the context in which it is delivered. On the one hand [The AI knows this is a compare/contrast piece.] higher education in prison can be empowering by providing incarcerated individuals with the knowledge, skills, and critical thinking abilities necessary for personal growth and social transformation. On the other hand [Yep.] higher education in prison can also be oppressive by perpetuating inequality and injustice, and by failing to meet the needs and goals of incarcerated individuals.

The body paragraphs dial up a few articles–the classic Rule of Three–:

One way in which higher education in prison can be empowering [Clear topic sentence.] is by making it more accessible to all incarcerated individuals, regardless of their background or the crimes they have committed. By making higher education more inclusive and equitable, [Dependent clause.] we can ensure that all incarcerated individuals have the opportunity to benefit from its transformative power. For example [Good…], a study conducted by the RAND Corporation [Adequate use of a Signal Phrase.] found that providing incarcerated individuals with access to education and vocational training was associated with reduced recidivism and increased employment opportunities upon release [Details from the study would come in handy here.] (Lacourse, et al., 2013) [AI knows APA.].

On the other hand [More hands.], higher education in prison can also be oppressive by limiting access to certain individuals and perpetuating inequality and injustice. For example [Not sure it’s necessary to repeat this phrase.], a study conducted by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights [Signal Phrase.] found that Black and Latino individuals were disproportionately excluded [How so? Needs some details…] from higher education programs in California’s prisons, despite having a higher need for education and vocational training (Petersilia, 2000). This lack of access to higher education reinforces existing disparities and denies many incarcerated individuals the opportunity to benefit from its empowering potential. [Good use of a “wrap-up” sentence.]

Another way in which higher education in prison can be empowering [These too-perfect topic sentences start to get a bit oppressive.] is by aligning it with the needs and goals of incarcerated individuals. By creating higher education programs that are tailored to the specific interests and aspirations of incarcerated individuals, we can better support their personal growth and empowerment. [Almost identical sentence structure as above: “By (gerunding) we can…” The program is working!] For example, a study conducted by [Repetitive.] the Brennan Center for Justice found that offering incarcerated individuals a range of education and vocational training programs, including college-level courses, was associated with improved outcomes upon release, such as higher employment rates and lower recidivism rates (Kahan, et al., 2017).

On the other hand [Sigh.], higher education in prison can also be oppressive by disconnecting it from the lives and experiences of incarcerated individuals. Many [A largely meaningless word, generally discouraged in college writing.] higher education programs in prison are disconnected from the needs and goals of the individuals they are intended to serve, offering classes and degrees that are of little relevance to their future plans and aspirations [Content quibble: Correct–it’s college.]. This disconnection [Nice! Never use “this” without a noun. Although I would be inclined to use “disconnect,” purely for stylistic purposes.] undermines the personal growth and empowerment of incarcerated individuals, and leaves them ill-equipped to navigate the challenges and opportunities of the outside world.

I make a similar argument in my MLA piece. Even some of the rhetoric is a close match. But I take a different tack, claiming, not that these programs are “disconnected,” but that they can actually mirror the regime of the carceral state. Next, the Conclusion:

In conclusion [Ouch.], higher education in prison can be both empowering and oppressive, depending on how it is implemented and the context in which it is delivered. By making higher education more accessible, relevant, and integrated, we can help support the personal growth and empowerment of incarcerated individuals and create a more just and equitable society.

Not bad. I particularly like the final sentence; plural pronouns, personal appeals, and intimations of the future are effective strategies for a Conclusion.

And, finally:

Suggested Citation

(Beasley & ChatGPT, 2022)

Beasley, C. R. & ChatGPT. (2022, December). HEP: Empowering & oppressing [Article].

I’m not sure how I feel about being asked to cite in this way, especially as Dr. Beasley has already said that “the content contained and writing are not mine, nor is content original to OpenAI.” Can one actually plagiarize AI content? Again, that’s a question for another day.

The piece seems fine in context. It undoubtedly works for content generation, business messaging, and anybody who doesn’t have the time–or inclination–to spend years on an article that might be outdated by the time it gets published. Yet it feels less like writing and more in line with information theory. “Information theory,” writes Jason Steinhauer, “is a mathematical framework, not a journalistic or humanistic one. It is not concerned with the substance of a message—its meaning, its accuracy, its intrinsic value. Rather, its principal concern is getting messages from point A to point B with as little interference as possible.”

In the end, this bird has no face. If I were to receive something like it as a student paper, I’d be impressed by the technical proficiency but I might also worry a little bit about the student’s mental state after being pummeled into submission by English teachers.

And that, I’m ashamed to admit, is a question that needs to be addressed in “Part the Second“–

One thought on “Confronting AI, Part the First

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