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The frightening reality for teachers of writing: “AI and the Death of Student Writing”

… another major challenge

In my many years of teaching English Composition, the introductory college English course, I, like so many others, was concerned that students turned in work that was uniquely their own. Teaching them academic honesty was paramount.

To try and make this process easier, I used a practice that students initially disliked, but ultimately accepted, one that I traced back to the English instructor who taught me the Comp course at Penn State-Altoona back in the late 1960s.

The practice: Have the students write the rough drafts of each essay in class — long-hand. It was a more challenging approach in what some students did not have great cursive or printing skills — but it worked. I knew on the first day just how well the students could write — and ascertaining plagiarism was made somewhat less challenging.

Today, however, the challenge has increased immeasurably. I just read an essay by a long-time Comp instructor in which she expressed the frustration with the latest challenge: Artificial Intelligence, or AI.

The recognition

Lisa Lieberman has been teaching the introductory comp course for years, but saw a marked improvement in her recent essays that made her suspicious,

It was getting toward the end of this recent semester, and I was at a loss. Either one of two things was happening: My freshman-composition students’ writing had gotten mysteriously, miraculously, markedly better over the semester compared with previous ones, or a large minority — easily one-third — of them were using AI to write their papers.

Lisa Lieberman, “AI and the Death of Student Writing,”

The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 7, 2024

The consumer form of AI is called ChatGPT. The challenge is whether or not the use of this is plagiarism or just cheating oneself. It could be both.

Those who teach in college make many attempts to have students engage in academic honesty in their writing. Some, like Ms. Lieberman, think of creative ways in which they can do so,

I’ve been teaching community-college courses in California’s Central Valley for the past 12 years, and I’ve prided myself on my clever assignments, designed to prevent plagiarism — assignments such as comparing totalitarian regimes in The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, or discussing the feminist undertones of Charlotte Perkins’s The Yellow Wallpaper and Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour.

But it no longer matters how good my assignments are. By simply inputting the assignment’s parameters, with the click of a button, a student can, in two seconds, come up with something brilliant and polished.

Lisa Lieberman, “AI and the Death of Student Writing,”

The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 7, 2024

The challenges of plagiarism

Where the line between plagiarism and AI merge is a blurry one. All professionals in colleges and universities, who are under attack by sleazy politicians — and well-meaning professionals — are being pushed by this phenomenon,

All of which brings me to these conclusions: we—humanity—will deal with AI as we have with so many other challenges historically. That is, imperfectly. Future historians will look back on this age in full view of our gifts as well as our faults.

Plagiarism is worthy of our attention. We—higher education—would do well to welcome the opportunity to take responsibility for our mistakes and clean up scholarship. We owe it to our students, to ourselves and to the generations of scholars who will succeed us.

We might also learn a thing or two about the epistemology of the craft, especially as it distills into different disciplines. In keeping with our own spirit, this is a chance not merely to fix a problem, but to learn from it.

Tracy Mitrano, “Plagiarism, AI, and Higher Education,”

Inside Higher Education, January 16, 2024

Detecting the cheaters is challenging

Discovering the cheaters is not an easy task, but sometimes, it is possible,

Take, for example, this excerpt from a student’s essay I assigned about The Shining, by Stephen King: “The Shining is a terrifying examination of the human psyche via the lens of Jack Torrance. A complex depiction of Jack’s development from a struggling family guy to a vessel of lunacy and malevolence is made possible by Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant direction.”

I called the student in and asked him to write a sentence with the word “depiction.” He admitted he didn’t know what “depiction” meant, much less how to spell it, much less how to use it in a sentence. He confessed he hadn’t written a single word of the essay.

Lisa Lieberman, The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 7, 2024

However, Ms. Lieberman discovered that some of the cheating is made possible by uses of some valuable tools. I use Grammarly regularly, though I tell students today that it is not always correct. It is still a valuable tool if used properly.

Nevertheless, If utilized improperly, it has the same effect as AI,

Another student complained when I gave her a zero for using AI. She said, “I don’t know why you’re picking on me. I turned in all my assignments on time. And I never used AI.”

It was true she hadn’t used AI, but when I pressed her, she admitted to using Grammarly.

Bingo. I investigated Grammarly and discovered it’s a multilayered computer program that does everything from simple spelling and grammatical corrections to rewriting entire sentences, adjusting tone and fluency.

“The school gives Grammarly to us for free,” she said.

What?! I checked with my department head, and she said that yes, the college gives students basic Grammarly free, but that if students have full sentences rewritten with AI, then they’re using the higher-level model that costs money, and that isn’t endorsed by the college.

Grammarly is free, but for a small monthly fee of $12, Grammarly can write most, or all, of an essay.

Lisa Lieberman, “AI and the Death of Student Writing,”

The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 7, 2024

John Wilson’s guidance

My freshman comp instructor in 1967 and 1968 was a wonderful man by the name of John Wilson. He was fabulous is demonstrating to me the proper way to write in an academic environment.

He made us write every first rough draft long-hand, and this was long before the internet or AI or any of those contemporary challenges. However, some of the current Comp instructors and professors may be wise to go back to his idea of writing the first draft long-hand.

It allows you to see first-hand exactly what the student’s skills are — and how to avoid plagiarism. We were free to correct and make improvements to our final drafts, but he knew very well what kinds of basic skills we possessed.

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