The Benefits of Writing 5:Thinking and Meaning

Let me say from the start – I’m not sure exactly sure where this post is heading. I have an outline typed up in a neighboring window, but I may not follow it. I’m going to see where my thoughts lead me. Because I’m a bit muddled right now. Or maybe I’m not. I’ll find out as a write.

For starters, I was appalled in recent months to find my students typing essays and taking every piece of automated, algorithmic advice offered by Microsoft Word. Microsoft was rating their writing, and mine, on the percentage of writing that met its standards for correctness. I turned off the function on my computer, and recommended they turn it off on theirs. In the name of conciseness, Microsoft would sometimes offer different words or even sentence structures to “improve” my writing. But I very deliberately, very carefully choose my words and order them the way I do for the effects I can create with them. I don’t need an algorithm messing with that.

I decided, eventually, to a comic strip about it:

Around the same time, my wife ask me if I’d want a new laptop for writers she saw online called Freewrite. It has no internet connection to distract you and no algorithmic tools to help you with your writing. I was tempted until I saw the price. And then I figured I could just leave the internet alone (except when writing online as I am now) and turn off the “writing assistant” tools as best I could – and keep my money. Ironically, shortly after I’d seen the “no-frills” laptop online, I saw teacher-writer Liz Prather post about ChatBot GPT on Twitter. (Quick note: Google, or whatever is spell-checking me here on Word Press just pointed out that ChatBot and GPT have a space between them, and that Word and Press in WordPress do not. This is getting very meta.) Prather was commenting on an essay about ChatBot GPT in The Atlantic titled “The End of High School English.” Her comment: “You know whose life is not going to drastically change? Project based writing teachers”.

Since then, I have read several articles about the ChatBot, read a ChatBot-produced family Christmas letter on McSweeney’s (it was hysterical), and seen a lot of teachers posting about how they planned to deal with the ChatBot. Full disclosure: I have not played with ChatBot GPT myself yet. I haven’t quite had the time – or the stomach for it. I’ve already had some one-on-one discussions about writing algorithms with my students… If there are good reasons for students to like the idea, I don’t think I’ve heard them yet.

Some pro-technology types are all for the ChatBot – it will make it so all students can write well! I don’t doubt that it might help some students produce good writing. What I do doubt is that it will actually make them good writers. I have also seen anti-ChatBot types say that we need to use ChatBot-busting algorithms, tighter anti-cheating measures, more things written by hand, more evidence of process. I don’t doubt that some of those measures might help us make it harder for students to get an algorithm to do their writing for them.

I think both the pro-Bot and anti-Bot factions are, perhaps, looking past things they don’t want to see.

First – how do we define writing? I just finished a whole unit on the power of definition with my students. Definition involves seeing to the essential nature of things. I believe writing is the act of putting words together in a variety of ways, in a variety of forms, for a variety of purposes, to communicate ideas that matter to the writer. Can any topic truly matter to a ChatBot? I suspect not.

We talked about the issue today in my Creative Writing class. I asked them if they agreed with these two statements: The more meaningful a piece of writing is, the less likely you are to outsource it to a ChatBot or to plagiarize it: think love letters, personal stories, journals, poems you write for yourself. The less meaningful a piece of writing is, the more likely you are to outsource it to a ChatBot or plagiarize it: think writing prompts with dull topics, business writing that needs no particular voice, maybe informational articles. There was broad consensus among my 9th through 12th grade students that those two statements are true.

I then asked my Creative Writing students to write about what makes writing meaningless for them, and what makes it meaningful. Their comments in discussion and in their journals were interesting.

Meaningless writing is “anything that’s educational writing,” “school essays that are soulless, lifeless,” “writing that doesn’t feel like mine,” “writing where you write to a checklist,” “assigned to make sure we can write in accordance to a rubric – a set of standards someone else sets to make all essays identical”. Interestingly, there were also students who said there was no such thing as meaningless writing, because they took whatever assignments were thrown at them and made them their own somehow.

As for what made writing meaningful, they had some very definite ideas: “Anything written with a degree of passion,” “anything that matters to the author,” “writing where I can write my own perspective however I want. Writings where I can be myself and express myself”, “writing where I can write for me. Not for a grade or to please the people who made the rubric.”

It seems to me that schools systems around the nation have been creating ever-duller writing tests designed to be easily graded by algorithms: the same prompt for every student, the same sources. But what makes that kind of writing easy for an algorithm to score now also makes it easy for an algorithm to write. It seems to me we have become so obsessed with a quality finished product and its attendant grades and scores that we have forgotten that writing is about more than getting a grade. We have forgotten about the importance of process: really having to think about your writing, playing with phrases and wording, finding just the right image, just the right fact, just the write juicy detail. Playing with your organization; figuring out how best to lead your reader into your writing and take a journey with you. Or just writing, as I have here, to figure out what you are thinking. Writing is a distinctively human activity that helps shape your thoughts, and sometimes even shapes who you are as a person.

Writing is thinking on paper. Our thinking is the fabric of our minds: our memories of the past, our imaginative hopes for the future. (My wife tells her seniors that without imagination, there is no progress.) If we allow an algorithm to do our thinking for us, we are at the mercy of the biases and ideas programmed into it by its creators.

The message the age of the ChatBot sends me is not that it’s “The End of High School English” or that we should just teach them how to use the ChatBot instead of actually writing. It’s that we need to stop assigning meaningless but easy-to-measure writing, and start making writing meaningful to students again. Mr. Fitz expresses it for me in this in-progress pair of frames from an upcoming comic strip:

Writing jobs may all be automated in the future, but at least our students will still know how to reflect, to discover what they think, and to put their own thoughts into action.

I am open to hearing how teachers have successfully integrated ChatBot GPT into their classrooms, but unless it helps student know themselves better, understand and clarify their own thoughts better, and make better choices as writers, I suspect I will be unimpressed, no matter how impressive those final algorithm-written essays turn out. We are supposed to be creating writers and thinkers, not finished writing products.

What is my takeaway for this post? That we should encourage students to just start writing and see what they think when they aren’t sure. That we should ask our students what kinds of writing they find meaningful and let them do that writing. Sometimes outwitting the ChatBot is as simple as that… I hope.

Thanks for helping me discover what I think.

Images via www.mrfitz.com. Created by David Lee Finkle

How do you help your students to find meaningful things to write about? How do you help them discover what they are thinking through writing? You can connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or engage on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters to continue the conversation.  

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2 Comments

  1. It does make sense! As I said, I’m still working out my thinking! (Which is something I can only do when I write for myself!)

  2. I really appreciated this post, and I plan to ask my students the same questions about what makes writing meaningful or not. I do wonder, though: how do we help our students stay motivated and willing to do the hard work of completing a writing assignment they don’t “care about”? I’m not sure it’s possible or realistic to assign work that will spark every student’s imagination or feel meaningful to everyone, and whatever I might do in my class to offer these kinds of assignments, I know my students will, at some point in their academic careers, be asked to write about something they don’t personally connect with. I don’t want to tacitly admit that cheating or cutting corners is somehow excusable when a student just isn’t “feeling it.” Does that make sense?

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