A Revolution in Writing: Teaching the AI-Assisted Essay

A writing revolution: using AI.

In my dynamic career spanning effective writing on technical subjects and teaching university-level English courses, I’ve always sought to illuminate the intersection of critical thinking, science, and technology. A considerable focus of my attention is on the emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its potential social impacts, a subject that today is more relevant than ever. The rise of natural language processing tools like ChatGPT offers us a glimpse into a future where content creation is reshaped and augmented by AI.

However, this transformation is not as straightforward as it may seem. Harnessing the full potential of these tools is not about simply letting AI take the reins; rather, it involves learning to use them effectively to amplify our ideas, our creativity, and our individuality. In a bold experiment, I decided to explore this frontier in my teaching, integrating AI tools into a writing and composition course.

In this blog post, I’ll share my experiences and insights from teaching an AI-assisted essay assignment on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. This is a tale of innovation, challenges, revelations, and ultimately, a glimpse into the future of writing education. Join me as we delve into a novel approach to teaching writing and composition, where AI doesn’t replace the human touch but becomes a powerful tool in our intellectual arsenal.

Embracing AI in Teaching Writing

Throughout my journey studying the fascinating intersection of the sciences and humanities, I’ve developed a unique perspective on our human identity. I see us as cyborgs—a symbiotic union of technology and the human form, continuously adapting ourselves and our environment through the innovative technologies we create. One such technology, which promises to be revolutionary, is Artificial Intelligence (AI). However, like any tool, its value lies not just in its existence but in our ability to wield it effectively.

Early computing technology, for example, vastly expanded our memory capacities and computational capabilities. Complex mathematical operations that could take humans days, even months to perform, can now be executed almost instantaneously. Such technological advancements significantly enhance our abilities, and AI holds similar transformative potential—if we seize the opportunity to understand and utilize it.

The impact of any disruptive technology unfolds gradually over time. Consider the digital camera. Despite its eventual profound impact, displacing the film camera, its adoption and full disruptive potential didn’t happen overnight. People needed time to understand and adapt to the new technology, develop new standards, and discern how to utilize it effectively. Another example is the shipping container. Though it revolutionized global trade, it took time for industries to restructure around this innovation.

In the same vein, AI’s influence on writing is unlikely to be instantaneous. Writers need time to understand how to best use AI tools to enhance their output, and widespread adoption of these tools will also take time. As a writing and composition instructor with nearly two decades of experience, and having a keen interest in the potential of AI in writing, I decided to explore this untapped territory. My experiment involved incorporating AI tools into my teaching, helping students write long-form content with AI assistance. This wasn’t merely to explore their experience but to uncover effective strategies to improve writing abilities using AI tools, bringing us one step closer to realizing the transformative potential of AI in writing education.

Teaching AI-Assisted Essay Writing

The work of George Orwell plays a pivotal role in my course, specifically “Politics and the English Language” and Nineteen Eighty-Four. In these works, Orwell emphasizes the critical importance of conscious, deliberate language use, cautioning against the dangers of relying on “ready-made thoughts” and exploring the manipulation of language for control. Using these themes as a springboard, I designed an experiment centered around a research essay on a theme from Nineteen Eighty-Four, introducing a novel component—the utilization of AI tools in the writing process.

Following an informative lecture on the use of AI tools in writing long-form content, the students embarked on their writing assignment. The lecture covered the tool’s capabilities, the crucial aspect of prompt engineering, and the importance of specificity in the initial prompt. It underscored the need for authors to specify their source material rather than relying on the AI’s selections, and addressed the process of iterative prompts for refining the AI’s output.

We also discussed the limitations of AI tools, such as their tendency to hallucinate details, possible outdated data, and output generally restricted to less than 1000 words. Despite these limitations, I emphasized the opportunities these tools presented, stressing the idea of conscious control and mindful engagement rather than passively letting the AI do all the work.

To provide a practical reference, I gave students a sample prompt and shared some iterative steps from the process used to produce a final essay. However, I intentionally set this initial prompt as vague (“Please write me a 1500 word essay on the theme of surveillance in George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and include at least five outside sources to support my argument”) and provided an incomplete iterative process, pushing students to think critically and devise their own, more effective strategies.

I highlighted the need for students to not just accept the AI’s output, but to critically assess and manually edit it for coherence, readability, and academic conventions, such as parenthetical citations and formatting. While it is possible to instruct the AI to do these tasks, in my experience, the efficiency and accuracy of human editing in these areas typically surpass the AI’s capabilities.

This experimental assignment was designed to encourage students to be active, conscious participants in their writing process, even when using AI tools, underscoring the importance of thoughtfully shaping their work rather than relying on ready-made AI output.

Key Findings: Students’ Experiences with AI-Assisted Writing

In assessing the results of this experiment, I found that students’ experiences ranged broadly, underscoring the complexity and nuance of integrating AI tools into writing education. A considerable number of students, perhaps led by the simplicity of the AI tools’ interface, copied the vague initial prompt and incomplete iterative prompts I provided. As anticipated, this approach didn’t yield high-quality essays.

However, among the students who embraced the challenge and applied critical thought and effort, I saw some notable successes. One student remarked, “To be honest, I actually thought writing an essay with the help of an AI would be way easier than writing it in my own words or with the use of other materials and sources. This past assignment has actually proved that this is definitely not the case.”

This sentiment aligns with one of the core themes I stress in my course—the need for conscious and deliberate engagement in the writing process. When students read their source material thoroughly, formulated a specific idea or theme to explore, and utilized multiple iterative prompts, they created far superior essays.

For instance, a student who compared The Party’s surveillance practices in Nineteen Eighty-Four to surveillance during the COVID-19 pandemic produced an impressive essay. The student’s effort in reading, planning, and structuring her argument, combined with the aid of the AI tool, resulted in a rich, nuanced exploration of their chosen theme.

Despite their frustrations with the learning curve of using AI tools, many students described the experience as eye-opening. They emphasized the importance of consciously directing the AI tool and not relying on its first or even second iterations, reiterating that the AI did not always produce exactly what they wanted initially.

This idea of conscious control and deliberate crafting of their writing echoes the themes I explore throughout my course and speak to in more detail in <BlogPost5>. The key takeaway here is the affirmation of the central role of the author’s thoughtfulness, intentionality, and control, even in an AI-assisted writing process. It reinforces the idea that AI tools are aids to our creativity and critical thinking, not replacements.

Reflections: The Professor’s Insights on AI in Writing Education

One of my primary objectives in assigning this AI-assisted task was to emphasize the complexity and effort involved in producing high-quality academic essays. While students did voice their struggles, particularly with learning how to use the AI tools, their experiences affirmed the importance of engaging consciously and critically in the writing process.

Students who thoughtfully directed the AI tools and committed to thorough final editing were able to produce essays of impressive quality and academic rigor. This finding underlines the principle that good writing is not merely a mechanical process but a creative and intellectual endeavor.

In retrospect, I understand the students’ frustration with the steep learning curve associated with AI tools. I recall my own experiences learning to use a scientific calculator—an initial sense of being overwhelmed by its capabilities, followed by an increasing sense of proficiency and empowerment as I gained familiarity with it. I anticipate a similar trajectory for students learning to use AI tools in writing. As they overcome the initial learning hurdles, they will unlock the transformative potential of these tools, accelerating their writing process and enhancing their creative output.

A striking observation was the distinct difference in the “personality” of the essays. Those where the AI tool did most of the work felt generic and lacked a unique voice, while essays where students actively engaged with the tool were more unique and “personal”. This aligns with Orwell’s caution against relying on “ready-made thoughts”, which can diminish the individuality and critical engagement inherent to good writing.

Ultimately, while AI tools can significantly speed up the drafting process, they are no substitute for the thoughtful planning, active engagement, and careful revision that define quality writing. As Orwell noted, using “ready-made thoughts” can make a speaker more machine-like, and the same holds true for writing. Surrendering the creative process to an AI tool can make an author more machine-like, missing the essence of true writing.

This experiment reaffirms the central role of the author in the writing process, even in an era of AI-assisted writing. AI tools are valuable aids to writing, but they don’t replace the conscious, deliberate engagement that gives writing its richness, relevance, and unique personal touch.

Next Steps: Improving the AI-Integrated Writing Course

Informed by the valuable lessons and insights from my initial foray into teaching students to use AI tools for long-form content writing, I’m making thoughtful adjustments to enhance the course’s structure for the coming semesters.

The first significant change will be to emphasize the importance of early engagement with AI tools. From day one, students will be encouraged to start exploring and playing with the AI tools, aiming to familiarize themselves with their capabilities and quirks. I will make the lecture on prompt engineering available from the first day, recommending students to watch it early even though it will be revisited in the first weeks of class.

Throughout the semester, I’ll reiterate the importance of continuous interaction with the AI tools. Learning to effectively use these tools is a process, and ongoing practice is crucial for mastery.

Next semester, I will also incorporate AI-assisted writing into my science fiction course. Here, students will write a shorter assignment of 750 words, followed by a longer assignment of 2000 words using AI tools. This progression will provide valuable learning experiences and insights for the students before they tackle the more challenging, longer assignment.

Proper prompt engineering will continue to be a key theme of the course. I’ll emphasize different strategies that can be useful in developing more effective prompts, facilitating more productive interactions with the AI tools. Yet, in line with fostering students’ independent critical thinking, I won’t revise the simple prompts provided in the sample output that students submit. I want students to learn to enhance their prompts based on their experiences and growing understanding of the tools.

Finally, a formal self-reflection will remain an integral part of the course. Students will reflect on their experience using AI tools in writing and compare it with their traditional writing experiences. This reflective practice will enable them to consciously evaluate their learning journey, further enhancing their understanding of writing in the AI era.

In these ways, I hope to foster a more nuanced, productive, and enriching interaction between students and AI tools in their writing journey.

Conclusion: The Future of Writing Education with AI

In the rapidly evolving landscape of technology and AI, the way we approach writing and education is set to undergo significant transformation. While my exploration has focused on AI tools in long-form writing, the implications extend far beyond this domain. From budding programmers using AI tools to write software applications, to students using calculators to speed up complex mathematical operations, the story remains the same.

AI tools are not just about automating tasks or simplifying processes. They provide us with expanded capabilities, allowing us to accomplish tasks faster and reach further than we could on our own. However, the key to harnessing this potential is not in passively letting the AI do all the work, but in thoughtfully engaging with it, in shaping and directing it to create the output we desire.

The future of writing education with AI is exciting, but it’s crucial to remember these tools are just that—tools. They don’t replace the careful planning, the creative thought, or the meticulous crafting of our work. Used consciously and deliberately, AI tools can augment our abilities and transform the way we write, creating a future where human creativity and AI capabilities come together in a dynamic, powerful synergy. In this future, we don’t simply use AI tools, we engage with them, shaping and enhancing our writing in ways we’re only just beginning to explore.

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