AI and the Essay

AI and the Essay

It is now rare to open a newspaper or listen to a news program without some mention of AI. These discussions often have a slightly apocalyptic tone – the Terminators’ SkyNet lives! In essence, AI confronts us with a real transformation of the way we do things.  And that is both hugely exciting, and scary.

Educators, too, are grappling with the implications of AI, particularly the way that ChatGPT (and alternatives such as Bard) upends assumptions about how we work. Evaluating students’ learning by asking them to write essays and exams, staples of secondary and tertiary education, now might become outdated. Asking students about the use of ChatGPT in their schools, most have told me they know others who use it for everything from basic information gathering to full-on essay writing. No one has acknowledged doing the latter themselves, and I think this reflects that students are as much at sea about this as their teachers.

When ChatGPT writes an essay, it produces content that is of higher quality than most high school students can deliver in terms of sophisticated word usage and clarity of argument. Its use might therefore be irresistible to students feeling the pressure of high expectations, busy lives, and an absence of clear guidance on the appropriateness of its use in particular fields of study and for different assignments.

As someone who loves technology but claims no education or insight into its development, I signed up for both OpenAI’s free version of ChatGPT and the more advanced GPT-4, to see what the fuss is about. Asking it to write commentaries on everything from the risks inherent in AI and obscure historical questions to why the San Jose Sharks played so badly this year (the answer turned out to be a litany of the obvious, from poor goaltending to “simply being outplayed”), it formulated answers in impeccable language, and certainly faster than I could have done.

But I think that ultimately there are three reasons why I would discourage students from using chatbots in their work with me:

  • Having a chatbot do one’s work is arguably plagiarism: presenting someone else’s work as your own. As Stanford’s newly released policy on the use of any generative AI puts it, Absent a clear statement from a course instructor, use of or consultation with generative AI shall be treated analogously to assistance from another person. To quote ChatGPT directly, plagiarism is wrong because it violates academic integrity, undermines the value of original work, and is a form of dishonesty. (Colleges do recognize that there are academic spaces in which professors might well allow or even encourage students to use generative AI, including classes on the development of AI itself.)
  • Secondly, for work in which we use writing to explain something or set out an argument, ChatGPT undermines learning itself. After all, learning lies not in presenting a final product for a grade, but the process that precedes it: creatively seeking out sources of information, critically weighing the validity of the information, and, after wrestling with competing ideas and conflicting evidence, using our command of language to construct an argument. Using a tool such as ChatGPT can sidestep that entire process.
  • Finally, as an admission advisor, I don’t think ChatGPT will serve college applicants well in writing their essays. Admission officers look for many things in an essay, from good writing skills to critical thought, but also insight into how an individual student thinks, sees the world, empathizes with others, and might contribute to a campus community. Running one college admission question after another through ChatGPT, I was astonished at the speed and literacy with which it answered. But I was equally struck by how anodyne every answer felt. None of the responses had me in it.

I asked it, for example, to write a short essay on my identity as someone of South African descent, and ChatGPT quickly produced a well-written piece on how I have been shaped by the values of my family and culture and by the political struggles of my country.  All quite true – of me and every other person who asks that question. Since it responds in broad strokes scraped from the experiences of others, it could not add anything about my unique experiences of how and where I grew up or adequately capture my distinctive voice. This is not ChatGPT failing. It is just the nature of generative AI and is what would make such an essay easy to read, but ultimately unsuccessful in its task.

In writing a college application essay, the task is not to produce the smoothest essay covering the broadest possible ground. Rather, it is to share something of what makes you uniquely and distinctively you. That can only be done by doing it yourself.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Empathy: Considering another’s perspective in a college application

Empathy: Considering another’s perspective in a college application

In preparing their applications to college, high school students are encouraged to be authentic, engaged, passionate, and committed. These are indeed great aspirations, and, hopefully, kids get the message that being true and honest with themselves and putting together a good college application should not be at odds with each other.

One quality usually missing from this list of exhortations, though, might be the most important one: be empathetic. Empathy is a powerful idea whose definition often depends on context. For some, empathy is the same as sympathy, the state of caring for others and “feeling their pain.” It is an emotional response to a shared humanity. “I work in a food pantry for the poor because I feel bad for those who feel hunger; I teach kids how to play basketball because I know how much joy I get from it.” We believe such compassion to be a powerful part of children’s sociality and work to cultivate it. And when colleges ask applicants to write about how they help make the world a better place, it is this kind of empathy that students lay claim to and that admission officers wade through.

In urging students to feel sympathy for those with less privilege than they have, though, we might want to encourage them to do more than feel another’s pain. We also want to suggest a shift in perspective in which they go beyond describing their response towards imagining and interrogating how the other side in this equation feels. Social psychologists call this “perspective taking,” and define it as “the ability to understand how a situation appears to another person and how that person is reacting cognitively and emotionally to the situation.”

Why does this matter to how students present themselves in their college applications? In reading about or listening to how students describe their community service, I am always struck by how they see it as a one-way street: they feel bad for someone who might not have what they do and tell us what they have done to alleviate that need. They rarely seem to realize that there is also another side in this philanthropic equation. The result is variations on the so-called “poor but happy villagers” community service experience that has become so frustrating – and even toxic – to admission officers. They read countless essays about suburban kids teaching, contributing to, and “giving voice” to those who are less privileged. These essays are filled with good intentions but lack even a rudimentary understanding of the inequality and lack of reciprocity in such philanthropic exchanges: the less privileged are merely there to be acted on, to be helped and, hopefully, to be grateful for the assistance.

Don’t misunderstand me. I think such service work can be hugely enriching to a student and can reflect a well-honed sense of social obligation, which I applaud. But we might want to open a conversation with young adults – as parents and as counselors – about what and who is on the other side of that helping hand; to add to their emotional sympathy for the less privileged some of the awareness that comes from a more rational empathy.

Shifting perspective and seeing an exchange from the viewpoint of another, also offers students useful insights about other parts of the application process and, indeed, of life. When students present themselves in essays and interviews, it is often clear that they have not given much thought to who their audience is. It is a one-way conversation: they ascribe to themselves the qualities they feel colleges value (I am determined, helpful, diligent, resilient, keen to help others). It does not occur to them that what they’re trying to say may not be what the other side is hearing! They reference extensive foreign travel, for example, sure that the admission reader will appreciate their global citizenship, when, in fact, the reader hears a blithe catalog of great privilege. And when they describe tutoring an underprivileged fellow student, they rarely consider that admission officers might have been such low-income students themselves — and could find their tone patronizing.

As educational counselors we work in the hope that whatever kids learn from applying to college – about choices and consequences, about good writing – they will bring to bear on other parts of their young lives too. In this, there are few skills more valuable to them than moving from seeing the world strictly through their own eyes, to understanding that in their every interaction with another, there is another viewpoint present too.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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