One of my personal mantras about writing is that writing is thinking.
Writing involves both the expression and the exploration of an idea, where the writing itself changes the shape of the original idea, winding up in a different, previously unknown spot.
Being aware of when this happens is one of the things I ask students to be on the lookout for as they write. This is an indicator that they are working from a deep and interesting place. If you are making discoveries during the process, those are likely to be the best bits.
But writing is not only thinking; it is also feeling. The act of writing is an emotional experience, and sometimes it is important, maybe even necessary to experience the emotions that attach to a particular piece of writing.
I know lots of higher ed people are aware of how the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education outsourced some of its messaging to students in the wake of the shootings at Michigan State to the ChatGPT algorithm.
Matt Reed explains how he can see such things happening inside of the bureaucratic apparatuses that make up a higher education institution and emphasizes how leaders must be able to recognize when boilerplate—particularly AI-generated boilerplate—is not up to the task.
Amen. But why must people be reminded of this?
One of the core arguments of Why They Can’t Write is that the writing students are asked to do in schools has been literally dehumanized and replaced with an exceedingly narrow definition of what passes for writing proficiency, essentially surface-level syntactical correctness governed by a number of prescriptive rules.
This is what the standard output from ChatGPT achieves, and that we are so blown away by this says a lot about what we’ve allowed writing to become.
But writing is an embodied act, and there are occasions—like speaking to your community in the aftermath of a mass shooting at a university—where the human self must be brought to the task. This is not just because you will get called out for outsourcing the job to an AI by the people who were looking for human communication, but because to outsource our humanity to something nonhuman is an ethical failure.
Even if the Vanderbilt office had left off the use of ChatGPT from the statement and no one had definitely known, it would’ve been a failure. That this isn’t immediately apparent to the people tasked with creating these communications suggests something has gone terribly wrong with how we conceive of what writing means and what happens when we write.
I die a little bit inside each time I encounter students who have been denied access to their own minds because of these cramped notions of what writing in school contexts means. I will not go so far as to say that what has happened to schooling is the chief cause of the increasing levels of anxiety and depression in school-aged children, but I’m certain that treating writing as only meaningful based on the product at the end of the process, rather than valuing the process itself, is not helping things.
Writing is the best tool I have for maintaining my own sense of self and belief in the power of my own agency. I do not think there’s anything special about this other than I’ve been allowed the privilege of writing so much out of my own mind.
I do not know why we make this something that only privileged people get to do when it’s not a particularly difficult thing to provide these opportunities to anyone, particularly in a school context.
Writing that allows us to both think and feel is what sets us apart from the algorithms.
Perhaps I can illustrate.
My father died in 2005. The loss of a loved one is both entirely ordinary and among the biggest things that will happen in your life. Along with the rest of my family, I was present at his passing in hospice care. I knew that I had been witness to something extraordinarily profound that I also could not hope to process or understand.
Four years later, I put this experience in my novel, The Funny Man, giving it to the titular character. The flood of emotions that came out as I wrote the scene was well beyond what I’d displayed at any of the official moments of mourning after his death, the memorial service or a year later, when we scattered his ashes on a Colorado ski slope.
Two years later, when the novel was being published, I wrote an essay about the passage and my relationship with my father, a man of his era who often felt distant, even as we understood his dedication to his family. The essay is a mix of appreciation for the father I had and regret over what we’d failed to do for each other when he was still living.
I learned something about love and grief and regret from writing that essay, and now every time convention requires me to express condolences to others on their losses, I am returned to those thoughts. I could not say if this results in the quality of my expression of condolences being any better than they would have been otherwise. Honestly, there’s only so many things you can say on these occasions.
But I know that when I write on these occasions, I mean what I say. I feel it.
We cannot outsource things that should be experienced by humans to the nonhuman.
I mean, now we can, I suppose, but we shouldn’t.
If you’re interested in a process that helps give students writing experiences, instead of writing assignments, please check out my new course, “Teaching Writing in an Artificial Intelligence World.”