Anastasia Gustafson, an English teacher and Northwestern University graduate student, responds to a blog post written by English teacher and author Brett Vogelsinger regarding the use of AI technology in the English classroom.
Artificial intelligence technologies, such as ChatGPT, seem to have stranded some English teachers at an ethical crossroads. To use it or to ban it? That is the question. This is an odd reality because the very genesis of AI rests in a strategy to which English teachers are known for being vehemently opposed: plagiarism.
In Brett Vogelsinger’s post “Inviting Artificial Intelligence with Curiosity,” he argues that teachers ought to “leverage our maturity and insight to guide [students] on using AI ethically, even as we strive to find our own way through the woods.” In essence, Vogelsinger asserts teachers should learn how to use AI “ethically” and share that knowledge with our students. Part of this exercise, Vogelsinger explains, should include “invit[ing] students to write collaboratively with AI transparently and reflectively, thinking and talking about their decisions.” He does explain that students should cite AI when it is used and consider its pros and cons in the classroom. My concern is not when Vogelsinger explains that AI is good at “explaining how to properly use new vocabulary, employ a grammar technique, or alternately word a thorny passage . . . [or] offer broad, observational feedback on student writing.” These things search engines, libraries, and writing resource texts have done for years. It is also not the reason most students utilize AI technology for English assignments. My concern is with the incorporation of “bits” or “chunks” of AI-generated content, as Vogelsinger puts it, into student work. My question to his assertion that we should invite this practice is this: How can any writer plagiarize—or steal—ethically?
Artificial intelligence technology, when used to generate writing for any form of publication, is plagiarism that cannot be solved by a citation or footnote.
This is because of how AI technology works to “compose” any form of writing. Simply put, AI is given written samples from a multitude of authors (many of whom do not offer their permission for such experiments), and then the AI works to Frankenstein it all together with the goal of presenting a “new” piece of work. But, just like Frankenstein’s monster, the writing produced by AI is missing an invaluable and intangible aspect of human authenticity. There is no originality in AI-generated content; it is all clippings from other people’s work that are stitched together to simply appear original, which is plagiarism by definition.
The Oxford English Dictionary makes it clear when it says that plagiarism is “the wrongful appropriation or purloining, and publication as one’s own, of the ideas, or the expression of the ideas (literary, artistic, musical, mechanical, etc.) of another.” If the nature of AI is to take work from other people and parcel it out into familiar but nearly undetectable fragments that resemble—but are not truly—an original whole, then that is plagiarism. Citing the usage of AI in a work is the same thing as saying the writer did not make this work in its entirety. A citation for any AI-generated content attempts to dress up what is wrong as what is right in a shameless, embarrassing, and Emperor’s-New-Clothes-type costume. In the case of anything creative, such as writing, artificial imitation just does not cut it. In order for writing to be ethical, it must come from the writer in full.
My final question to Vogelsinger’s argument is this: Why should English teachers remove the power of creative agency from our students and bestow it upon AI technology? In his work, Extending the Conversation: Writing as Praxix, Robert Yagelski explains that “writing can—and should—be a vehicle for individual and collective transformation. And writing instruction at all levels of education can and should be about imagining and creating a better world together.” I am hesitant to believe students will become better at experiencing, imagining, and writing about this world when technology does the thinking for them. I am also hesitant to believe that removing fundamental aspects of the writing process, such as the personal struggle to grasp this praxis, will help propel students into any form of imaginative transformation. The act and final creation of writing goes beyond a methodical, code-based process that can be regurgitated by a lifeless box plugged into the wall. Stephen King puts it best when he says “To write is to be human.” I think it best if we not rid ourselves of that right so quickly.
Anastasia Gustafson is an English teacher at Carmel Catholic High School and a graduate student at Northwestern University. She composes her own graphic novels and works as a freelance artist when she is not in the classroom. She is active on social media and can be found on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Gustafson also maintains a personal website.
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