If we think OpenAI’s ChatGPT has killed the essay, we’re missing the point of writing.
Humanists have sounded the alarm over OpenAI’s ChatGPT. Some are even saying that ChatGPT has killed the essay. Its capability to generate accurate, readable, and even engaging text given any prompt is incredible. It will undoubtedly become a tool used (and abused) by students in both secondary and postsecondary education. Focused on its potential misuses, many teachers express worry about what it will do to writing in the classroom. While some of those fears are warranted, I hope that the existence of ChatGPT and its future competitors will cause reflection about why we teach writing, not fear about its demise. ChatGPT’s existence does not have to mean the death of the essay.
Of course, if the only goal of writing an essay is to convey an idea, then yes, this may be the end of the essay as we know it. But I have to believe that there is more to writing. In order to discover what that might be, it is important to draw a clear connection between what it means to write and what it means to learn.
My first introduction to this connection came as an undergraduate majoring in history at California State University, Channel Islands. I was taking Historiography, our historical methods course, when my professor, Dr. Nian Shen Huang, reminded the small group of students in the room: “Talking rarely deepens people’s minds, but writing forces one to think; good, persistent writing produces good thinking.”
Always looking to him for wisdom, my pen quickly recorded his words on my spiral notebook. Like other moments in his classes, which I signed up for as often as my schedule allowed, I was inspired. To him, writing’s purpose was not solely found in its product, but perhaps even more importantly, its process.
Fast forward to my 5 years as a middle school history teacher in South Los Angeles, I took that inspiration and emphasized writing daily in my class. The above quote from Dr. Huang made my “quote of the week” section of my whiteboard at least once a year. I often reminded my students of the importance of using writing to solidify their thoughts. In this respect, the art of the rough draft held deep importance–something I attempted to model regularly by writing essays as a class up on the whiteboard, the quote of the week serving as our inspiration in the corner.
In December 2021, Adam Grant, Organizational Psychologist at The Wharton School, reminded us of this approach to writing in a Tweet:
Writing is more than a vehicle for communicating ideas. It’s a tool for crystallizing ideas.
Writing exposes gaps in your knowledge and logic. It pushes you to articulate assumptions and consider counterarguments.
One of the best paths to sharper thinking is frequent writing.
When I read Grant’s tweet, I instantly thought of that Historiography class almost a decade prior. Why do we write? To formulate our ideas. To sharpen our thinking. The product is only part of an important process. If we can do a better job of getting this goal of writing across to our students, perhaps the essay is not dead.
At Thinking Nation, we continue to stress this goal of writing whenever I can. We believe it is transformative for empowering students. When students write, they think better. We cannot let artificial intelligence take that away from them.
Almost every week I get to enter into secondary classrooms where students are wrestling with deep questions, analyzing various sources, and presenting their thoughts through that very medium that is supposedly “dead.” But it’s not.
The essay provides students with a place to try out their ideas, explore the use of evidence, and refine their ability to make a claim. Of course, the product still does matter, but the process reveals far more useful information on student thinking.
ChatGPT has not killed the essay. To be sure, we may need to rethink how we do essays in our classes given AI technology. But writing an essay is far more than the product at the end. ChatGPT may transform the way we think, but we cannot let it replace our thinking.
As long as we can remember that as educators and emphasize that for our students, we can still rely on that trusty, and perhaps even timeless, method of assessment: the essay.