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  • Writer's pictureKate Schenck

In Your Own Words: ChatGPT and Other Intelligences

Updated: Jul 14, 2023

For the past year, academia has been roiled by news that students can use generative artificial intelligence such as ChatGPT to write essays, personal narratives, and even poetry, and it has left many teachers wondering what their future looks like in the classroom. We have seen students turned in for honor council violations for using chatbots to generate work they submit as their own, and a general tension and unease has spread across humanities departments in particular, who teach writing with personal voice. In fact, many departments and districts are banning ChatGPT altogether. Yet, teachers would be doing students a disservice to not try to understand artificial intelligence and find a way to co-exist with it in the English classroom. In this letter to her students, high school English teacher Kate Schenck makes a first attempt at discussing the enormous implications of a technology she is only beginning to understand.

I only know that learning to believe in the power of my own words has been the most freeing experience of my life. It has brought me the most light. And isn’t that what a poem is? A lantern glowing in the dark.

Elizabeth Acevedo, The Poet X

Dear wonderful students:

As we prepare for another school year, I am spending the summer thinking about a familiar theme – how we stay true to our voice, and by voice, I really mean ourselves. I have spent years not being true to myself, for one reason or another. From choosing a college because it was impressive on paper, to dating the wrong people, to staying too long in toxic friendships, to choosing a career after graduate school. I don’t regret these choices and I’m not going to be hard on myself here: I have hardly ever known who I truly am (does anyone?), so my choices, of course, haven’t always served me well. But lately I have been slowing down and thinking about how, in the quiet moments of a teacher’s summer break, I can better hear my own voice; not the anxious, scared, worried, and overactive voice that often chatters in my ear, especially when I am working hard and overstretched, but the softer, gentler echo of my soul. So many distractions pull us away from ourselves on a daily basis: our cell phones, social media accounts, drama in our workplace or friend group, hypervigilance and anxiety, terrible news at home and abroad, stress and worry about college and careers…the list goes on and on. Now, it seems more than ever l am exploring how to use reading and writing in our own words as anchors in these storms.

Much ink is being spilled right now about language bots such as ChatGPT and how they are poised to change education, not to mention human life on earth. As a language program that can generate words for you, many of you have at least heard of ChatGPT, played around with it, or even used it as a tool when you were stuck on an assignment and needed help. I am absolutely no expert at artificial intelligence (AI). Honestly, I am intimidated even attempting to write about it, but by engaging with the public conversation about AI, I think we have an opportunity to meditate on an interesting habit: cultivating personal resistance.

I have been reading Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines, and The Search for a Planetary Intelligence by James Bridle, and I am making connections to AI that surprise me in their hopefulness. I am coming to understand intelligence as an interconnected system of inputs and resulting creation or movement. As a gardener and a pet parent, I spend a lot of time observing plant and animal intelligences. As I write, the temperature outside is 100 degrees, and I am worried if my garden will survive or be baked to death in the heat. I feel helpless because my plants cannot talk to me and tell me what they need because they don’t speak and have a different intelligence than my human brain. Yet what I am observing when I look outside my window on a hot summer day is actually how the system of my garden will respond to an outside stressor, or my garden’s ecology. As Bridle notes, “The term 'ecology' was coined in the mid-nineteenth century by the German naturalist Ernst Haeckel in his book Generelle Morphologie der Organismen, meaning ‘the whole science of the relations of the organism to the environment including, in the broad sense, all the conditions of existence.’ The term derives from the Greek ekos, meaning house or environment; in a footnote, Haekel also referenced the Greek hora, meaning ‘dwelling place.’”

Where we dwell, or live, is also where we spend our time, and remain; our dwelling place is our soul and our home. And, dwelling in a place implies some agency and the choice to stay; to dwell is to linger. When we have the gift of personal agency we make a decision for ourselves; someone doesn’t choose for us. We might take stock and question our options and situation, and then, weighing all the evidence, make a decision that impacts our life one way or another. Isn’t voice really just this decision making process? When you do or say something for yourself, in your own words, you are dwelling in yourself, and using your voice. In a sense, you are cultivating your own ecology.

So the question might be, where do I, or you, dwell? What is our dwelling place built of? How do we stay autonomous in our dwelling place amid the waves of technology that are poised to pull us away from ourselves? How and where do you spend your time and also exhibit agency in your life?

Bridle argues that AI is another intelligence system that we need to observe and understand as an ecology that can exist alongside us, just as plants and animals do, and “learn to live with the world, rather than seek to dominate it.” However, there are many darker interpretations of AI that can scare us, especially from those who claim AI will replace humanity, and we will all become extinct. So, considering this context, how can we live alongside ChatGPT, and other technologies such as social media, but also not let them consume us? And what does being consumed look like, specifically in an English classroom?

I have had great conversations over the years with students about social media, and how, if the program is free, we are the product. Corporations are behind the screens and intend to make money through our attention. Because much, if not all, of our social lives are now conducted online or on our phones, it can be easy to look down way more than we look up and into the present moment, and the time you are giving to your phone is profiting someone, and it is likely not you, yet, we give so much of ourselves, and our time, to these platforms.

And now, the same conversations are happening about AI and chatbots like ChatGPT; if they are free, who will benefit? According to Bridle, “After all, the captains of digital industry, the beneficiaries of the vast wealth that technology generates, have the most to lose in being replaced by super-intelligent AI. Perhaps they fear artificial intelligence because it threatens to do to them what they have been doing to the rest of us for some time.”

When I think of others “doing to” me what they would not to themselves, I think of personal resistance. I am reading another great book this summer called Living Resistance: An Indigenous Vision for Seeking Wholeness Everyday by Kaitlin B. Curtice. She defines resistance as “The way we use our everyday lives to exert energy against the status quo. We make a choice not only against something, but for something else.” I love the second part of her definition: by resisting, we aren’t just against something, but rather for something different, another option. A scientific word, resistance measures not just physics but also how I will think for myself and make my own, perhaps counter-cultural, choices.

However, resisting the status quo can be horribly uncomfortable. Curtice notes: “The fear is in that in-between space of not knowing, the emptiness where we have to wait for an uncomfortably long time to come to any conclusion about who we are or what sort of world we live in. Often, it’s not at all about the answers but about our willingness to step outside of what we know and ask the question in the first place.” Resistance might be small acts – going for a walk without your phone, going to bed thirty minutes earlier without scrolling, or even allowing yourself to rest quietly for 15 minutes before moving onto another task. We can take these small resistant steps to cultivate our dwelling place, or mind and self, and consider what we are pouring into both.

How much of your story will you tell, or, how much of your story are you willing to give away?

So what about the idea of resistance and AI? This year, in my senior English course description, I am offering the following thoughts on personal resistance:

So, what do I think about AI, truly? I have a hunch ChatGPT is here to stay (just kidding--we know it is here to stay), and I look forward to discussing artificial intelligence with you this year. We don’t know everything about AI, but what we do know for sure, through various comparison experiments, is that ChatGPT can answer most writing prompts, but cannot infuse the answer with a human (your) voice. There might come a time when it can and the implications of this potential are enormous and beyond the scope of this course alone, but we will continually come back to this question:

How much of your story will you tell, or, how much of your story are you willing to give away?

Just like you might give a little of yourself away, in the form of your time and your attention, when you scroll mindlessly on social media, every time you ask an AI chatbot to answer something for you, and turn it in as your work, you give a little piece of yourself, and your story, away, and someone else (not you) will benefit. A small piece of your dwelling place is compromised. So, your goal could be to remain whole by doing your own work and viewing AI as a potential tool and sidekick, but not a “body snatcher” or replacement. Like Curtice notes, to resist by being against using AI to speak for you, you must be for something else, which could be using AI as a collaborative tool. As I continue to say in my course description: “You must resist by not allowing your mind to be snatched by AI. Or another website, friend’s work, friend’s voice, random stranger on the internet. You get the (very important) idea.”

Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1978

Maybe if we think of generative AI as another intelligence on earth, like plant and animal systems, we can collaborate with AI in the English classroom instead of letting it overtake or become the author of our words. Style organizations such as the Modern Language Association (MLA) are offering citation rules for ChatGPT; I have also heard interesting ideas about using bots like ChatGPT to teach grammar and to analyze voice in writing.

At the same time, we must remember our personal ecology and respect the dwelling place of our own minds. No one can speak for you; this lesson might take a lifetime for us to understand, but we can begin trying by resisting the urge to blindly use technology in ways that will gradually chip away at our autonomy, such as spending too much time scrolling on our phones, or turning in ChatGPT words as our own. Like Brindle notes, the relationship between us and technology should be rooted in “care: a constant attentiveness to the meaning and effect of our entanglement.” We can ask questions such as, what is this technology doing for me? And in turn, what am I giving up? Who is profiting? Is the technology elevating, or burying, my voice, or relationship with myself?

Perhaps care begins by taking our time and thinking about and considering the mysteries of all we do not know, or understand, rather than being afraid, making assumptions, or jumping into the water, before we take a look around. I look forward to joining you as we gaze at this evolving world, together in wonder.

Ms. Schenck

Kate Schenck is currently stewing tomatoes and learning how to stitch.

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