As the director of the writing center at Williams, I’ll admit to having reached out to colleagues at other colleges earlier this semester with a message that said, more or less, “We’re toast.”
That’s because no essay produced by the artificial intelligence chat bot that has unsettled so many of us in higher education will contain a typo, misplace a modifier, overuse the comma or—and on this you can defiantly depend—misspell an adverb. By and large, those are the issues students visit my writing center to discuss. We’ve come to see the goal of writing as getting to our point quickly, making a strong argument and concluding carefully, all with perfect grammar and syntax. But anyone who has revised a paper or come back to an idea after a sleep or a walk or a shower will tell you that the true goal of writing is to clarify, understand and experience our own thinking.
The Bot will steal that from you. My message to students is: Don’t let it.
I’m not wringing my hands about the end of writing, literature or even the excellent academic essay. But students for whom writing feels like a transaction or a chore will no longer be motivated to practice it. (Writing is, above all, a practice.) With The Bot, you can effortlessly and almost instantly produce essays that one faculty colleague described as surface level and formulaic but solidly in the B range.
Students who care more about their GPA than muddling through ideas and learning how to think will run to The Bot to produce the cleanest written English. It won’t matter that the ideas The Bot spits out aren’t their own.
When, on the other hand, writing is seen as an iterative process that helps students figure out what they think, the goal is to work through thoughts and further research and revision to land on something potentially messy but deeply thought out. Writing as thinking becomes the process and the result.
With The Bot’s arrival, we’re now in a bifurcated world. On one side are students who will use The Bot to create the clean writing they think their professors want. On the other side are the students who will continue to write the old-fashioned way. Some argue this levels the playing field: Everyone’s sentences are clear, all paragraphs are well structured and build to a natural conclusion, spelling is perfect, and grammatical errors are absent. After all, writing is an equity issue. Faculty judge students from under-resourced schools alongside those from prep schools, neurodivergent students alongside “mainstream” thinkers and multilingual writers alongside native English speakers. How wonderful would it be if faculty members’ implicit (or explicit) biases could be squashed by uniformly well structured essays?
Yet all bifurcation leads to someone’s oppression. Name a faculty member who can’t spot surface-level thinking and formulaic writing. Rather than leveling the playing field, I believe we are dangerously close to creating two strata of students: those whom we deem smart, insightful and deeply thoughtful and those who seem less engaged with the material—or less able to have serious thoughts about it. Yes, writing is an equity issue, but it’s not just about using Standard American English and “properly” structuring essays. Students who let The Bot speak for them aren’t doing themselves any favors in the long run.
Writing is hard. We hit walls, stare at the blank page, return to our research, underline new ideas, come back to the blank page. It’s daunting and overwhelming and, at least in my experience, fills me with self-doubt. I have never written anything—not a college paper, not my senior thesis or my master’s thesis, not any article I wrote over a 15-year freelance career, and certainly not my book or this essay—in which I knew what I thought about the topic until I’d written about it for a pretty long time.
Students: Don’t rob yourself of the chance to understand—and expand—your own brain. Don’t waste your years in college looking for shortcuts. Don’t let The Bot do your writing about books or big ideas or science experiments for you and let what you could have learned from them disappear. Writing is thinking. Practice one to sharpen the other. It may not be the only way to a college degree, but it’s the best way to get the most out of it.
This essay is edited and reprinted from Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 23, 2023. The original is available at bit.ly/writing_as_thinking.