I Am Not Afraid of the Chatbot

Good news, everyone!  You can take all those pots and pans clogging your kitchen right down to the dump, because in our modern society, you no longer need to learn to cook.

I know, I know – how could I even suggest such a thing?  Cooking is practically as old as humanity itself.  If you can’t cook, how will you eat?  But just think about this for a moment.  Close your eyes and picture your local grocery store.  No, not the meats or the produce.  Picture the frozen foods aisle.

Look up and down the frozen foods aisle.  Look carefully at what’s in those cases.  Frozen burgers, chicken strips, and fish filets for your main course, already seasoned.  Frozen vegetables and potatoes, pre-cut, for your sides.  Pizza and pasta dinners in their own oven- and microwave-safe trays.  Mussels in tomato sauce, stuffed poblano peppers, and veal marsala for when you feel fancy.  All assortment of microwaveable hand-held pies.  Ice cream, mini-pies, lava cakes for dessert.  None of which require more laborious preparation than pushing some buttons on a microwave or emptying a bag onto a sheet pan.

Sure, it might not be real home cooking or what you’d eat in a nice restaurant, but you can feed yourself and your family and your dinner guests this way, and why wouldn’t you?  You’re not a chef.  You’re not applying to culinary school.  You have better things to do, and a lot of those frozen foods are probably tastier than what you’d make anyway.  So quit spending all that money on raw meat and fresh produce and eggs and flour and a gazillion kitchen gadgets.  In the 21st century, most people simply don’t need to learn to cook.

Okay, relax, I’m pulling your leg.  But…did that sound ridiculous to you?  Are you shaking your head at how badly I have missed the point of cooking a beautiful, delicious meal from scratch?  If so, imagine how I feel now when people talk the same way about writing.


Like pretty much every-freaking-body, I’ve discovered ChatGPT, a “large language model” developed by OpenAI that has been trained to have conversations with human users.  

Mostly, I’ve been enjoying torturing it.

It’s certainly the talk of the town at my Esteemed Place of Employment, mostly in fearful, anxious tones.  You see, prompted to do so (as above), it can also write non-dialogue material.  It can write stories and poems.  It can write essays, and while those essays are nothing brilliant, they’re not atrocious.  Here’s its response to my request that it write a paragraph analyzing Iago’s motivations for trying to ruin Othello’s life:

In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago’s motives for destroying Othello are multifaceted and not entirely clear. On the surface, it appears that Iago is motivated by jealousy, as he is passed over for a promotion in favor of Cassio and becomes convinced that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia. However, some critics believe that Iago is motivated by a deeper, more insidious hatred of Othello, who is a black man and Iago’s superior in the military. Iago may also be motivated by a desire for power and control, as he is able to manipulate the other characters in the play to do his bidding. Ultimately, Iago’s motives for destroying Othello are complex and open to interpretation.

Brilliant literary analysis?  No.  Better than quite a bit of what my students write about Iago’s motivations in Othello?  Absolutely.  This paragraph would likely earn a B- in my class if submitted for a homework assignment, which is a tempting proposal for students who on their own earn Cs and below.  Perhaps you are beginning to see the problems it might pose for those of us who teach students to write – students who, in many cases, would prefer not to have to write.

The anxiety over the chatbot zeitgeist is perhaps best expressed through a much-read recent Atlantic piece with a headline designed in a laboratory to provoke fistfights, “The End of High School English” by veteran teacher Daniel Herman.  Herman thinks ChatGPT is less going to end than it will radically transform high school English:

My classes tend to have about 15 students, their ages ranging from 16 to 18. This semester I am lucky enough to be teaching writers like James Baldwin, Gloria Anzaldúa, Herman Melville, Mohsin Hamid, Virginia Held. I recognize that it’s a privilege to have relatively small classes that can explore material like this at all. But at the end of the day, kids are always kids. I’m sure you will be absolutely shocked to hear that not all teenagers are, in fact, so interested in having their mind lit on fire by Anzaldúa’s radical ideas about transcending binaries, or Ishmael’s metaphysics in Moby-Dick.

To those students, I have always said: You may not be interested in poetry or civics, but no matter what you end up doing with your life, a basic competence in writing is an absolutely essential skill—whether it’s for college admissions, writing a cover letter when applying for a job, or just writing an email to your boss.  I’ve also long held, for those who are interested in writing, that you need to learn the basic rules of good writing before you can start breaking them…I don’t know if either of those things is true anymore. It’s no longer obvious to me that my teenagers actually will need to develop this basic skill, or if the logic still holds that the fundamentals are necessary for experimentation.

The chatbot can even make the same arguments he does!

Read the whole piece; it’s good and provocative.  It’s also, in my humble opinion, wrong.

To be clear, there’s a great deal that I agree with here.  The existence and easy access of ChatGPT and its brethren will transform English classes, just as QuickMath and Mathway and other math homework problem solvers have transformed math classes.  I have already told my students that from now on, as far as I’m concerned, if I didn’t watch you write it, you didn’t write it.  That’s okay, though – we’ll be doing a lot more writing together, and we’ll all be making great strides in our penmanship.  It’s also true that my more advanced students and I might have some fun with ChatGPT, where we use it to generate an initial response to a question about their reading and then argue over how good its answer is. 

Herman and I depart, however, at his concern over whether we can still sell reluctant or struggling writers on the value of doing your own writing.  Here, Herman makes one of the great mistakes of English teachers everywhere: he thinks we can sell students on the value of our enterprise by convincing them that they’ll need writing skills for their adult lives.  If the chatbot can do your mundane day-to-day writing for you, he worries, students will rightly scoff at that argument.

Here’s the thing: teachers have been using that “college and career” line for generations, and it doesn’t work, because it isn’t true, and our students know it isn’t trueIt wasn’t true before the existence of ChatGPT and it won’t be true if we blow up the Internet tomorrow.  Despite my algebra teacher’s assurances to the contrary, I have never once needed to find the area of an ellipse by hand for college or for my career.  (I have needed to use the Pythagorean theorem, so if you’re reading this, Mrs. Daniel, thanks for that!)  I never liked math much and I was pretty determined to have a career that didn’t require much of it.

But I did have one math teacher – my geometry teacher – who got me to buy into what must surely be one of the least popular exercises among high school students, the mathematical proof.  He worked us through the steps of a basic proof and explained each one in exacting detail as he went along.  The excitement in his voice as he worked through each step kept us all silent and attentive.  As he got to the QED step, he turned to our class, smiled, and said “isn’t that beautiful?”

It was.  It was simple, elegant, and in its own weird abstract way, lovely.  I still didn’t love math, and I never got past “adequate” at proofs, but I was willing to accept that math had its own value, that it could be an end in itself.

Writing, too, has intrinsic value.  King Lear is not a great play because it advanced Shakespeare’s career, but because it’s one of the most poetic and profound meditations on familial love and growing old that has ever existed.  At a level that perhaps more of us can aspire to, Ogden Nash’s animal poems aren’t a joy to experience because they made him famous, but because they make us giggle.  And then there’s the sonnet that one of my 11th grade students wrote a few years ago about making mac and cheese.  That student, who is now a premed, may never write another sonnet again.  But I’ll always remember that poem, and her, because of how much it taught me about her.  That she was witty and clever.  That she loved to cook for her family.  That she could make fun of herself (in the poem’s final couplet, she dropped the pot of mac and cheese).  She might not become a professional poet, but the world is a tiny bit better for her poem being in it.

You should learn to write by yourself, in other words, for the same reason you should learn to cook in the era of abundant prepared foods.  Not because you plan to become a professional writer, or a professional chef.  Not because they will win you prizes or make you money or increase your social mobility.  For most of us, they will do none of those things.  But being able to express yourself with creativity and elegance – on the page and the plate – will leave you a more fulfilled person, imbue your life with richness, and make you a greater asset to your community.  It will give you a tool, not to serve yourself, but to serve others by offering part of yourself.  That is how we must sell writing to students in the age of frozen-food text generation.  Some of them won’t believe us.  But many of them will, as long as we believe it, and we show them why we do.

The chatbot is not our enemy.  Use it – to write some emails or some website copy or a stupid poem about Elon Musk fighting a wombat.  Lord knows I’ll be using it to make practice AP questions when my students start approaching test time.  And lord knows, when I’m exhausted after a long week at work and my toddler is hungry, it’s nice to have frozen cheese ravioli at hand.  But do not mistake practicality for artistry, and do not dismiss the value of the latter simply because the former sits close at hand.

So, my dear students who might be reading this, the naysayers and doomsayers are correct.  You don’t have to learn to write, just as you don’t have to learn to cook.  But you should do it anyway.  Maybe it won’t be very good; it almost certainly won’t be at first.  But let it be you, full of your loves and hates, passions and dreams, cutting insults and clever jokes, nuggets of wisdom and insight and occasionally utter nonsense.  Let it be you.

No matter how good they get, the frozen food aisle and its AI equivalent can never do that.

2 thoughts on “I Am Not Afraid of the Chatbot

  1. I was just thinking about how im going to address chatgp in my scientific writing class and lo and behold my favorite writing guru already gave me the answer


  2. Love this! Your own love of writing (and teaching) really comes across. Also makes me appreciate how different teaching is now from our generation in school. “If I didn’t see you write it, it doesn’t count” is a concept I never would have thought about but at the high school level….makes a lot of sense.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s