Bits on Bots: Of Microwaves and Manuscripts

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This is the inaugural post in a new series on teaching in a post-AI classroom called Bits on Bots. Be sure to follow along with posts tagged with "Bits on Bots." 

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Jennifer Duncan has been teaching English for twenty years, first at Chattanooga State Community College in Tennessee and now at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College in Atlanta, GA where she is Associate Professor of English.  For the last ten years, she has focused exclusively on online teaching concentrating on creating authentic and meaningful learning opportunities for students in composition and literature courses.

 

I remember in the 1980s when my family got our first microwave – a hulking thing that came with its own cart and a payment plan. It also came with a recipe book which touted the amazing things this miracle machine could do. From scrambled eggs to Thanksgiving dinner, it promised my mom she’d never be more than 30 minutes from a world class feast. Now, I love a Hot Pocket as much as any 80s kid, but if you ever tasted one of those microwave turkeys or slimy bowls of eggs, you know that despite its promises, a microwave can’t do everything!

That microwave lesson probably affects how I’m approaching AI in my composition classes as much any of the research (also newly nuked and still in its “let it rest” phase) I’ve encountered so far. I figure the odds of composition teachers being replaced by AI are about the same as that of my microwave replacing Gordon Ramsey. Both can produce dinner, but they certainly aren’t equally palatable. Instead, through experimentation and experience, we’ll determine what things the AI is good for and what still needs to be in the hands of a skilled professional.

It’s easy to think of AI as an essay generating machine, and yes, it can do that – just like you technically can nuke a turkey – but you’ll definitely notice a difference in the taste. But, just like that trusty microwave, when used properly, it can be a powerful tool in my students’ writing arsenal: right now, I’m teaching my students to use AI as their writing prep chef (I’m all in on this cooking metaphor now, so hold on). If the first step in writing is generating, cultivating, and curating ideas, LLMs (large language models) can help my students do that quickly and effectively – IF, I teach them how.

So, gone are my lessons in free writing and clustering, replaced with lessons on generating, synthesizing, combining, and choosing from AI generated topics. Old lessons in audience analysis are served with a side of lessons on prompt engineering because both require students to think about context, purpose, and desired outcomes.

But beyond writing, I’m encouraging my students to use AI as a coach.  Can’t understand the difference between vivid language and imagery? Ask ChatGPT for a quick refresher.  Need a research strategy or writing schedule? Ask ChatGPT to create that schedule.  How about a grammar check because your unreasonable professor won’t fix comma splices for you?  Yes, AI can help with that too. Sure, I might prefer that they use the tutoring center, but years of experience have taught me they aren’t going, so, like the microwave bags of vegetables that appeared on our family table, AI essay reviews are better than not having anything to offer at all.

Through experimentation, I’m working with my students to find appropriate ways this tool can speed up their writing process, fill gaps in their preparation, and develop technical skills that they can take beyond my classroom and into their professional lives.  Some experiments will go badly (ever see what happens to aluminum foil in a microwave?), but others will allow my students to move past hurdles to get their finished product on the table, much like the defrost function can move that frozen chicken towards turning into dinner.

Here’s the thing – my mom never wanted to be a chef. With a job, three kids, and a husband working night shifts, she wanted to get food on the table so that she could spend her time and energy on what mattered most – the homemade cake she’d pull out of the oven to the delight of everyone – and the microwave helped her do that.  I’m hoping I can help my students learn how AI can help them work through their writing gaps so that their ideas can fill up a room like the smell of a freshly baked cake.

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