Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Can AI (ChatGPT) Replace Writing?

AI writing (ChatGPT, etc.) is supposed to be transformative and all, the Washington Post tells me.

 The New York Times  worries about jobs; no worries, says the Washington Post, since AI requires "chat whisperers" to get the best from the software. CNET tried publishing articles written using it, but oops--too many mistakes.

AI can also spark creativity, apparently, although the examples most outlets choose to illustrate the creative problem-solving sound like obvious solutions. It's more of a springboard to creativity than a solution to writing, as scifi magazines have found out since they were flooded with AI-written stories and had to stop submissions for a while.

But what can the writing part of AI do well as of this writing?

1. Perfect C essays, all correct grammar, platitudes, puffery, and no substance.

2. Mission statements, ditto. 

There are surely nuances I'm missing, but everything I've seen so far either when testing it myself or when reading about it has been pretty much on the spectrum from 1 to 2.

It will get better, but ChatGPT--which, yes, is in its infancy--is so far like a bar trick--you know, where someone puts a quarter inside a bottle or something by magic means, or folds a dollar bill in a certain way to win a bet. I can't be more specific because I mostly only see this on Better Call Saul, but you know what I mean. 

There's been a lot of hand-wringing about how this might affect the classroom: one IHE writer calls it a "plague on education"  while others suggest creative uses for it. Some instructors have started using it to get students to question their assignments and test its limits. 

I'm kind of eager to see how this might work in the classroom next year. What about you?

Edited to add: Here's the first paragraph of what it wrote when I asked it to write like me. Like looking in a mirror, don't you think? This blog is all about the peppy self-help pitch, am I right?

Write a blog post in the style of 


"The Art of Doing Nothing" Greetings and salutations, my dear readers! Today, I would like to talk about the lost art of doing nothing. Yes, you heard that right, doing nothing! In our fast-paced world, it seems like everyone is in a rush to do something, be it work, hobbies, or socializing. The constant stimulation and activity can be exhausting and leave us feeling drained. But, what if I told you that taking a break from it all and doing nothing can actually be beneficial for our health and well-being? Studies have shown that taking time to do nothing can reduce stress, increase creativity, and improve our overall mental and physical health. It's a simple concept, but often overlooked. So, how exactly can we incorporate this into our daily lives? One way to start is by simply taking a few minutes each day to sit quietly and do nothing. No phone, no TV, no distractions.

Friday, February 10, 2023

More on handwriting

[Sorry! I was trying to get rid of a dead link in this old post and it posted as a new one.] 


The Washington Post has an article, "The Handwriting Is on the Wall" about the death of cursive (not handwriting per se--thanks, Sisyphus, for making that distinction). Here's a snippet from p. 2:

In one of the studies, Vanderbilt University professor Steve Graham, who studies the acquisition of writing, experimented with a group of first-graders in Prince George's County who could write only 10 to 12 letters per minute. The kids were given 15 minutes of handwriting instruction three times a week. After nine weeks, they had doubled their writing speed and their expressed thoughts were more complex. He also found corresponding increases in their sentence construction skills. But Graham worries that students who remain printers, rather than writing in cursive, need more time to take notes or write essays for the SAT. Teachers may say they don't deduct for bad handwriting in class, but research tells another story, he said. When adults are given the same composition written in good handwriting and poor handwriting, "they still give lower grades for ideation and quality of writing if the text is less legible," he said. Indeed, the SAT essays written in cursive had slightly higher average scores than those written in print, according to the College Board.
I'm not as worried about the first statistic. First graders aren't college students, and by the time students have practiced some form of handwriting for 12 years, they're bound to get pretty good at it. Some people can print as fast as they can write (anyone ever teach engineering students? I rest my case), so that statistic may not hold true. But what about the second part? Have you ever noticed a correlation between types of handwriting and the content of the work? Most people I've talked to who've graded a few thousand essays have formed some impressions, although they don't let it get in the way of assessing a paper. Maybe if everyone starts printing, those differences in scores will be erased--or maybe the advantage then will go to the fastest typists. Also, will it become difficult for people who don't know how to write in cursive to read cursive writing? Disclosure: the handwriting thing is hitting home for me because it seems to be going down the tubes just as I've gotten all interested in pens, inks, and paper. I've been trying to keep a notebook recording word counts, notes, page counts, information to look up, etc., and have been writing in it with my new pen. (I'm not obsessed yet the way some are, but I can spend far too much time pondering the qualities of J. Herbin versus Noodler's Ink or Clairefontaine versus Moleskine notebooks. Okay, maybe I'm a little obsessed.)

Thursday, February 09, 2023

Latest in the "let's kill all the libraries" movement: newly-formed Vermont State University

Quick midday post: the newly consolidated Vermont State, the latest college to kill the libraries, is really, really committed to it:

Administrators announced Tuesday afternoon that the system’s member schools — Castleton University, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College — will shuffle their athletics programs and transition its five campus libraries to an “all-digital” model. 

The library shift is set to take place by July 1, and will eliminate seven full-time positions and three part-time ones, according to Parwinder Grewal, the inaugural president of Vermont State University. ...

As part of those changes, campus libraries will shift online, meaning students will only be able to access books, academic journals and other materials online. Most of the physical books and other materials will be donated and administrators plan to “repurpose” the spaces. 

We're not talking about your basic Starbucks Memorial Library here, knocking out a few obsolete science journals to make room for the ever-essential coffee machines and treadmills.

All the books will be gone. 

I kind of get it. My students don't seem to go to the library much, except when I take them on a tour or make an assignment requiring it. 

But the no-books model has some issues.

1. How could you not like to go to the library and work with real copies of, say, The Illustrated London News or Harper's Weekly in big oversized bindings, especially when your campus may or may not have access to the increasingly-behind-paywalls digitized versions? Learning is so 2-D in a digitized world: we look at screens all day, every day. It's kind of exciting, as my students tell me every semester, to go and look at the actual materials. 

2. And given that budget cuts happen every single year in a university, and library budgets are especially prone to being given the axe--happens at Northern Clime every year--what happens when students don't have access to a particular paywalled resource?

3. What happens if you're working with a historical text (a novel, say, from Google Books or HathiTrust) where part is missing, blurred, or otherwise inaccessible

4. In a broader sense, won't this lead to more of a haves vs. have-nots situation, with this being one more place where resources are removed for the have-nots but kept for well-funded universities? 

Maybe this is all an irrational fear on my part. I guess it's reminding me of an exam I had to grade one time for an independent study student (not my student). The exam hit the basics but did not go one word, one thought, or one sentence beyond what was absolutely required. Did it pass? Yes. But it was like a ChatGPT essay: grammatically correct and without insight, a perfect C. 

Somehow I think that a curious student + a library with books has a better shot at a different perspective, which may be a romantic illusion.

Your thoughts? 

Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Random bullets of February 1

  •  First of all, happy February! January's over, and you got through it, so yay!
  • I'm still hoping that the cloud cover clears so that I can see the green comet
  • If you haven't read about New College of Florida--about how the Florida governor is undercutting academic freedom and removed the well-respected scholar Patricia Okker in favor of one of his sycophant/cronies, here's your chance. What I'm seeing from other academics is that New College was basically the honors college of Florida. Here's more from the New York Times about how DeSantis is laying waste to the education system, one step at a time, to "build his brand" for 2024. 
  • Speaking of "building a brand," I am sick to death of those videos of big talking heads of influencers flapping their gums at me from a camera 2" away whenever I go to a news site or Twitter. If I wanted to see big talking heads saying nothing, I would go to TikTok or Instagram. I realize that this is a niche view and that apparently all Americans have lots of time and money to waste in paying attention to influencers, but please, make it stop on sites where news might actually be present. Yes, I sound like my grandmother. Consider this my entry in #crankyrantsmanship for February.
  • About two years ago, we started hearing about substacks instead of blogs, which are apparently passé. A substack is a blog or newsletter that you pay for instead of reading it for free. Since binge-reading blogs is a treat for me when I have time and email is a "one more thing I have to deal with," I'm not usually tempted to subscribe, except for George Saunders's story club (which I still haven't joined), and I'm definitely not inclined to write one, since it requires a real rather than sporadic commitment. Questions: 
    • Do any of you have a substack (maybe under your real names)? 
    • Do you like the format and interaction?
  •  I'm hesitant to say anything about writing for fear of jinxing the progress made thus far this year, but it's going all right. What's different?
    • I've gone back to the pomodoro system and
    • I'm tracking in the notebook as well as in the Excel spreadsheet.
    • Notes and brainstorming count as much as real writing. Hey, they're words, too, right?
    • For the current project, I'm using Scrivener for the draft so that I can see all the notes I've made, which is easier than having 15 Word documents open. 
  • How's your February going? 

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Random Bullets of MLA 2023

Figure 1. Marriott Marquis in San Francisco.
 Happy New Year! It's time for the (somewhat) annual MLA roundup.

The last MLA I attended in person was in Chicago (2019). I attended & presented at MLA 2022 virtually and attended but didn't present at 2021. I like virtual conferences, and as my Visa bill tells me this month, they're also a lot less expensive. (No reimbursements from Northern Clime.)

But on to 2023 San Francisco!

  • It's probably not news to anyone that the travel to San Francisco presented "challenges," as we now call problems. Southwest had just barely recovered from its scheduling meltdown when an "atmospheric river" unleashed a "bomb cyclone" of rain on the Bay area, right at and before--you guessed it--the exact time when MLA was scheduled to start. I lucked out by getting there just before everything hit, but the rain and wind were epic at times. 
  • Because of travel and illness issues, I heard that some sessions scheduled to have, say, 5 people had only 2 show up. That can't be helped (except through virtual sessions), since even the mighty MLA can't control the weather.
  • The MLA had the good sense to choose a main conference hotel--the Marriott Marquis--right across the street from the 4th St. Trader Joe's. How great is that? Instead of a soggy $15 breakfast sandwich, you could get food that you actually wanted to eat. The rooms had real mini-fridges so that you could stock up on salads or Diet Coke or other familiar treats. And the hotel actually honored the deal where if you were a (free) Bonvoy member, they waived the $14.95 internet fee.
  • Speaking of technology, A+ for that! When I went up to the projector with my big bag o'dongles (HDMI, VGA, etc.--thanks, Apple!) ready to get set up, I discovered that the HDMI cable and connection were already at the podium, so there weren't any awkward cords. Audience members politely reminded people to lean into the microphone. And there was even a tech person coming by to make sure that we were all set up, that the screen actually showed what we had on our computers, etc.
  • The conference venues (the hotel and the Moscone Center West) were good as well. The Moscone Center is cavernous, with ceilings about twice the height that you'd think is necessary, but that's just what you want in COVID times--social distancing. 
  • I heard from other attendees that some of the hotel sessions were overcrowded but didn't see it at the conference center. Of course I got lost going from one to the other, even though they are literally like one block apart, but that's due to my terrible sense of direction and the lashing rain that made the street signs hard to see.
  • The MLA sensibly mandated masks, and everyone I saw wore masks except when actually presenting papers. 
  • The Big Meeting went smoothly and focused on issues of actual, practical use to the profession. I groaned inwardly when we were broken into small groups for discussion a few hours into the meeting, considering it cosmic payback for doing this in teaching, but the discussion was actually interesting.  

This doesn't address the many interesting sessions, but I'd be here all day doing that. 

Happy 2023!

Other MLA Conference Posts: