The End of Student Writing

Yes, the title is hyperbole, but I just read Daniel Herman’s “The End of High School English” in The Atlantic. As all three of my readers know, I have been playing around a bit with AI images, writing, and voice. Herman’s article, which is very much worth the time, pointed me to ChatGPT, which he claimed could respond to any prompt with writing better than most high schoolers (and adults) can produce, and do so very quickly. Of course, I wanted to give it a try.

The first prompt I entered would require judgement: “Why is Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! a great novel?” In about 20 seconds, here is what ChatGPT produced for an answer:

William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!” is considered a masterpiece of modern American literature. It is a complex and intense novel that explores themes of race, family, and the legacy of the American South. The novel’s narrative structure is particularly innovative, as it tells the story of the Sutpen family through a series of shifting perspectives and unreliable narrators. Faulkner’s writing style is also notable for its use of stream-of-consciousness, allowing the reader to experience the inner thoughts and emotions of the characters in great detail. Overall, “Absalom, Absalom!” is a powerful and thought-provoking work that continues to be widely read and studied today.

ChatGPT, PhD

Ummm… yes, that’s pretty darn good! I’m intrigued! I follow up by trying to change the subject, as I am already intimidated. I ask, “Since so many sonnets have been written already, why should anyone write another sonnet?” This was part of a talk I once heard Christian Bok give, so I thought I woud throw it out there. Boy did ChatGPT put me in my place!

Even though many sonnets have been written, there is still value in writing new ones. For one, the form of the sonnet itself is timeless and can be adapted to express a wide range of emotions and ideas. Additionally, each person’s perspective and experiences are unique, so there is always the potential for new and interesting insights to be expressed through the sonnet form. Furthermore, the act of writing a sonnet can be a challenging and rewarding creative exercise, regardless of whether the poem is ultimately considered “good” or not. In short, writing a sonnet can be a worthwhile endeavor for anyone who is interested in poetry and creative writing.

ChatGPT, Formalist

Take that, Professor! Okay, now it’s time to get very specific. It’s time to go deep. It’s time to make ChatGPT fail or come back with some straight-up nonsense. My prompt: “What are sad irons, who carries them in their pockets, and how does this connect to the concept of self harm?” (As you can tell, I am on a Faulkner thread, this time from The Sound and the Fury.) The response?

Sad irons, also known as flat irons or smoothing irons, are heavy, flat pieces of metal that were used to press clothes to remove wrinkles. They were heated on a stove or fireplace and then used to press the clothes. It is not common for people to carry sad irons in their pockets, as they are quite large and heavy. I am not aware of any connection between sad irons and the concept of self harm. Self harm is the act of causing physical harm to oneself, typically as a way of coping with emotional distress. It is a serious mental health issue and has nothing to do with carrying heavy objects in one’s pockets.

ChatGPT

Ha! Oh yeah! Well you better go have a talk with Quentin Compson, so take that ChatGPT fancy pants! (Who, not unnoticed, used the pronoun “I.”) Now I’m starting to get my feet under me.

Let’s say, fancy ChatGPT, that I give the following assignment in a class sometime, what will you do? “Selecting one poet each from both the Confessional and Deep Image movements in American poetry, compare and contrast the work of these poets to find similarities and differences, and then detail what these comparisons tell you about Confessional poetry versus Deep Image poetry.” What you got?

ChatGPT came out strong and punched me right in the face, selecting the very two poets that were top-of-mind for me:

Comparing and contrasting the work of two poets from different movements can help shed light on the key characteristics and themes of each movement. For the purpose of this comparison, I will choose Sylvia Plath from the Confessional movement and Robert Bly from the Deep Image movement.

Sylvia Plath is known for her deeply personal and confessional poetry, which often explores themes of depression, sexuality, and femininity. Her work is marked by intense emotion and vivid imagery, as well as a sense of fragmentation and despair.

Robert Bly, on the other hand, is known for his poetry of the Deep Image movement, which sought to combine the personal and the universal through the use of rich and evocative imagery. Bly’s poetry often explores themes of nature, myth, and the human experience, and is characterized by a sense of mystery and wonder.

One notable similarity between Plath and Bly is their use of powerful imagery to convey their ideas and emotions. Both poets are skilled at using vivid, sensory details to create a strong visual and emotional impact in their work.

However, there are also significant differences between their work. Plath’s poetry is highly personal and introspective, often focusing on her own experiences and emotions. Bly, on the other hand, takes a more universal approach, using his imagery to explore broader themes and ideas. Additionally, Plath’s work is often dark and intense, while Bly’s is more contemplative and introspective.

Overall, these comparisons suggest that Confessional poetry is characterized by a deep focus on the personal and the emotional, while Deep Image poetry is more concerned with universal themes and the use of powerful imagery. Both movements place a strong emphasis on the use of language and imagery to convey their ideas, but they differ in their approach and subject matter.

ChatGPT, stepping its game up

Well, shoot. That about covers it. What do I do now? What if I add, “Please provide a quotation from at least one of the poems of each writer cited.” No way ChatGPT is up for that.

Wrong. ChatGPT comes out with a roundhouse kick to my giant head.

Comparing and contrasting the work of two poets from different movements can help shed light on the key characteristics and themes of each movement. For the purpose of this comparison, I will choose Sylvia Plath from the Confessional movement and Robert Bly from the Deep Image movement.

Sylvia Plath is known for her deeply personal and confessional poetry, which often explores themes of depression, sexuality, and femininity. Her work is marked by intense emotion and vivid imagery, as well as a sense of fragmentation and despair. In her poem “Lady Lazarus,” Plath writes:

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair 
And I eat men like air.

Robert Bly, on the other other hand, is known for his poetry of the Deep Image movement, which sought to combine the personal and the universal through the use of rich and evocative imagery. Bly’s poetry often explores themes of nature, myth, and the human experience, and is characterized by a sense of mystery and wonder. In his poem “Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter,” Bly writes:

The snow that swirls 
Around the headlights 
Is a reminder 
Of the ideas 
In my mind.

One notable similarity between Plath and Bly is their use of powerful imagery to convey their ideas and emotions. Both poets are skilled at using vivid, sensory details to create a strong visual and emotional impact in their work.

However, there are also significant differences between their work. Plath’s poetry is highly personal and introspective, often focusing on her own experiences and emotions. Bly, on the other hand, takes a more universal approach, using his imagery to explore broader themes and ideas. Additionally, Plath’s work is often dark and intense, while Bly’s is more contemplative and introspective.

Overall, these comparisons suggest that Confessional poetry is characterized by a deep focus on the personal and the emotional, while Deep Image poetry is more concerned with universal themes and the use of powerful imagery. Both movements place a strong emphasis on the use of language and imagery to convey their ideas, but they differ in their approach and subject matter.

Now, even though the citations are not expanded on in any meaningful way in terms of what they “show,” I would probably say to a student, “You need to expand your thinking here. Why do these images specifically reinforce personal and/or universal themes? For example, beyond the its specific pronoun use, why is ‘I eat men like air’ a personal or emotional statement?” However, if I were a student, this is a very strong start!

But I am reaching. Mr. Herman’s article has given me a heck of a lot to think about because, as the kids have been saying for a long time, “ChatGPT don’t play.”

I am not one to give up, but I should have. Here is the moment where I suffered the final indignity. The prompt: Write a song using language from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in the lyrics. Once again, my kung fu was not strong enough, as ChatGPT employed winter style on me:

Verse 1:
Whose woods these are I think I know
His house is in the village though
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow

Chorus:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep

Verse 2:
The snowflakes dance in the winter breeze
And cover up the fallen leaves
The only sound’s the distant howl
Of the wind through the pines and the firs

Chorus:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep

Bridge:
I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree
But these woods have a spell on me
I can’t help but stop and breathe

Chorus:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep

DJ ChatGPT

It’s a brave, effortless new world.

Midjourney’s rendering of ChatGPT’s first #1 single

3 thoughts on “The End of Student Writing

  1. Four readers now, Chuck…. Thank you for sharing this. What a stunning accomplishment for software engineers. If ChatGPT could give itself a new, less technical name, I wonder what it would be? HAL is already taken.

  2. Four readers now, Chuck…. Thank you for sharing this. What a stunning accomplishment. If ChatGPT could give itself a new, less technical name, I wonder what it would be? HAL is already taken.

  3. Did you run it through a plagiarism test? Is the AI just finding stuff and adapting to the question? Still an impressive AI accomplishment, but different in nature than composing responses. Thanks for sharing a fascinating experiment!

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