A student with her computer

Assistant Professor of English Robert Bruss shares why ChatGPT will never replace the human touch.

Since the public release of ChatGPT at the end of November, my various media feeds have been flooded by articles with titles like “Will ChatGPT Kill the Student Essay?” and “ChatGPT Can Write Better Essays Than My College Students.” I teach writing. In particular, I teach Introduction to Writing (a common core requirement, taken by most students in their first year of college) and even a course devoted to writing creative non-fiction essays. Looking at these articles, you’d think I’d be wringing my hands, but I’m not worried. Here’s five reasons why:

1. Good writing is more than conventional writing.

ChatGPT is a sophisticated AI chatbot called a language learning model. You can ask it questions, you can have a conversation with it, and yes, you can ask it to write essays, too. It even does a decent job, especially for a computer program. I recommend you go play around with it. It’s fun.

But, it is still a computer program which means it writes programmatically, pulling from models and mimicking the most common styles and structures. In other words, it’s really good at structure and typical writing conventions, but it can never say much more beyond what’s most common or cliché. But good writing is much more about having something worthwhile to say, rather than just following an expected structure like the five-paragraph essay. My teaching is much more about empowering students to write something that matters to them and the world around them, rather than just how to avoid passive voice.

2. Good writing cares about context.

Even though ChatGPT has some strengths, it necessarily has clear weaknesses, too. Good writing is responsive to its specific rhetorical situations. In other words, it is tailored to its specific time, place, and audience.

One of the Introduction to Writing assignments I have students do early on in the semester is a rhetorical analysis of a space on campus. I ask them to go to various places on campus and write about what that space is designed to communicate and what it communicates to them. I asked ChatGPT to write a rhetorical analysis of the chapels on our CUW and CUAA campuses. ChatGPT could only make comments about the design of campus chapels more generally (it also made some assumptions about our chapels that were factually inaccurate). It certainly couldn’t discuss how the chapels highlight theological distinctions of Lutheranism, and it could never bring in the personal aspect of the assignment.

3. Academic shortcuts are nothing new.

One thing I find surprising about the discourse around ChatGPT is that people talk as though no other academic aids have ever existed for students. Historically, new tools rarely doom disciplines. For example, math is still important even though we really do always have a calculator in our pocket now.

Even in English, this has been the case. I asked ChatGPT to respond to some of the prompts from one of my American Literature classes. Again, I was impressed by the answer a computer program could write, but it wasn’t really any different than the kind of thing students write after reading SparkNotes or Cliff Notes. Those tools have been around for ages now, but a good literature class is still as valuable as it has always been. Literature classes are much more than a catalogue of common interpretations. They teach you how to think critically and for yourself. They teach you valuable interpretative methodologies and ways of thinking and making meaning.

Likewise, a college writing class is not just about the essay, but about the function and value of writing, about the ethics of writing, and about researching effectively and responsibly. It’s about assessing our thinking habits, our communication habits, and our assumptions about our readers. In other words, yes, ChatGPT might be abused by some students, but we’ve never solely looked at the final product. And, honestly, most students want to do their own work, especially if the professor makes it clear why it’s worthwhile.

4. ChatGPT can be a tool for writers.

The above are reasons why ChatGPT is not going to replace writers and why it is not going to make writing classes obsolete. As such, I am not afraid of it. But more than that, I think treating it like it will only be useful to “cheaters” makes teachers less effective and does our students a disservice. As ChatGPT and similar services become more advanced, writers will need to learn how to use them effectively and ethically.

I am excited for the ways that ChatGPT could help writers in their brainstorming and drafting stages. I also think it will help a lot of students who are overwhelmed with writing, who experience writer’s block, or who struggle with procrastination. I think about ChatGPT the same way I think about citation generators like EasyBib or Citation Machine. These tools can be really helpful and sometimes make our work more efficient, but they can also make a lot of mistakes. But that doesn’t mean they are useless; you just can’t let the machines do the thinking for you. Once you offload that responsibility, that’s when you start running into problems. The same will be true of ChatGPT. We have a responsibility to teach students how these tools can support their work, just as we have a responsibility to show them why they can’t do the work for them.

5. Human beings adapt.

I’m pretty confident about the points above, but even if I’m wrong about them, I’m still not worried about ChatGPT. Humans have a great capacity to adapt to new situations and new technologies. Writers will continue to adapt. Teachers will continue to adapt. And it’s this capacity that, ultimately, I think we provide here at Concordia University Wisconsin and Ann Arbor. It’s provided through individual classes, through the diverse range of curricular and extra-curricular opportunities, through the inter-disciplinary and liberal arts education we offer, and through our commitment to helping students in mind, body, and soul. In this way, we empower students to adapt to change and show them why change does not have to be so worrying: No matter what changes we can remain forever confident in our faith in Christ Jesus.

Want in?

CUAA offers a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in Digital Humanities. The latter helps you blend your passion for English and lifelong learning with the development of 21st-century technological skills required for the global job market.

—This article is written by Robert Bruss, an assistant professor of English at Concordia University. He is based on Concordia’s Mequon campus. He began his tenure at Concordia in 2022.