Confronting AI, Part the Third

“Good-Bye to All That” —Robert Graves

“TL/DR” — Anonymous

One of the persuasive articles I use in class is, “It’s Time to Allow Doping in Sport,” by English sociologist Ellis Cashmore. Here’s the Introduction:

The Lance Armstrong case forces us to consider a philosophical problem that has tormented sport since 1988 when Ben Johnson was disqualified from the Olympics after testing positive for drugs. Not ‘How we can improve detection and make punishment serve as both deterrent and restitution,’ but ‘Should we allow athletes to use drugs?’ My answer is yes.

I propose we consider the problem that has been tormenting academia since before the threat from AI in a similar way, but by taking it a step further. Not, “How we can improve detection and make punishment serve as both deterrent and restitution” and not even “Should we allow students to use AI?” but “Should we be still be teaching college composition at all?”

My answer is…probably not.

The following quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson is hanging on my office door:

Do not think the youth has no force, because they cannot speak to you and me. Hark! in the next room their voice is sufficiently clear and emphatic. It seems they know how to speak to their contemporaries. Bashful or bold then, they will know how to make us seniors very unnecessary.

The discourse gap is very real. Students decided long ago that writing papers is irrelevant–to their future, their interests, and the modes of communication, primarily visual, that they have been using since birth. I can’t say I disagree with them. Consider: I had to take college composition almost half a century ago and did my composing on an IBM Selectric. The year I earned my Masters Degree, computers looked like this:

Plus, this emphasis on mass literacy is a fairly recent movement in human history, anyway. For example, Nicole Eustace, professor of history at New York University, in her book, Covered With Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America, writes that “[c]olonists signed with a mark when they were illiterate, having learned to write only a single letter of their name.” And according to David Vincent, in The Rise of Mass Literacy: Reading and Writing in Modern Europe, the whole push began with the Treaty of Berne in 1874, with the idea that “[e]very inhabitant of every country from Sweden to Greece, from Russia to Ireland, was to be linked together in a common system of flat-rate postage.” Civilization seems to have chugged along quite nicely without long-form writing up to that point.

What if, then, instead of writing papers, students were encouraged to express learning in other, more personal, forms of communication? “The only gift,” writes Emerson, “is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me. Therefore the poet brings a poem; the shepherd, a lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, coral and shells; the painter, a picture…” I would love to see what they could do with such an opportunity.

An example of how this might work is the annual “Dance Your PhD” contest, run by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. Granted, as the rules state, “[Y]ou must have a Ph.D., or be working on one” (i.e. you need to have written something) and the dancing can hardly be called “professional,” but it’s still a great way to generate interest and communicate ideas to a wide audience.

Writing existed long before the Treaty of Berne; it will not disappear after AI. Those who feel its force will continue to write, and will continue to find readers for whom the most important quality of a written work is not the hollow proficiency of syntax, but the intimation of a human soul as its source. Academic disciplines—history, sociology, life sciences, certainly literature—will continue to draw disciples who see writing as not mere “content generation” but as a source of discovery in its own right, and who find meaning in the interplay, even the tension, between form and content.

But, when it comes to our students, we need to let it–and them–go. As Kahlil Gibran wrote, in “On Children,”

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
     For they have their own thoughts.
     You may house their bodies but not their souls,
     For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

It’s time to let the students dance.

“Early Life Social Experiences Shape Social Avoidance Kinematics in Larval Zebrafish”
–Antonia Groneberg

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