By Evan Thomas
What does it sound like to sound educated yet know nothing? In a 17th-century comedy by Molière, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (“The Middle-Class Aristocrat”), a rich cloth merchant tries to imitate aristocratic education and speech. He takes philosophy classes and learns that his normal expressions “require a little lengthening” – he must learn how to stretch heartfelt statements (“your lovely eyes make me die of love”) into aristocratic contortions (“Of love to die make me, beautiful marchioness, your beautiful eyes”; “Your lovely eyes, of love make me, beautiful marchioness, die”; “Die, your lovely eyes, beautiful marchioness, of love make me”; “Me make your lovely eyes die, beautiful marchioness, of love”). The joke is on him, as his rhetoric tutor cruelly exploits his easy admiration for excessive, voluminous, amplitudinous, prolix, verbose, copious speech.
The example of the Bourgeois Gentilhomme is echoed in a new development in AI. Recently, OpenAI released ChatGPT, a large-language model (“LLM”) AI that appears to have tremendous facility at composing passable long-form texts. As an educator in higher ed, I don’t think that writing pedagogies are remotely ready yet for the instructional challenges posed by this technology. The main concerns that academics have had about AI and collegiate writing have to do with academic integrity. These are important concerns and addressing them will probably have massive relevance in the years to come.
However, not all academics are especially concerned by the threat posed by AI language models. First, some academics express confidence that their domain-specific knowledge is too inscrutable for a machine to understand. Second, others suggest that the strength of their bonds with their students would make it impossible for their students to make an unnoticed switch to a different voice. Whether the first or second case is true, whether some content or character is indelible, there are finer, more constructive applications of LLMs to writing in higher ed.