Popular Cultural Writing Assignments in the Age of ChatGPT

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Close-up of computer screen open to OpenAI's website describing ChatGPT functionality.jpg

Whether one regards the sudden emergence of ChatGPT as an opportunity, a disruption, or a disaster, it is here to stay and will have to be adapted to if one wishes to continue to impart the critical thinking and writing skills that are the traditional learning outcomes of a college composition class. This is not unlike the introduction of the pocket calculator in the classroom more than a generation ago. Of course, a great deal of attention has already been paid to this topic, and will continue to do so in the years to come as AI technology evolves, but for the purposes of this blog I wish to focus on a simple set of DO/DON'T recommendations, especially if one has adopted a popular cultural semiotics approach to writing instruction.

I will start with a single DON'T: DON'T create writing assignments that ask your students to "write a semiotic analysis of... [fill in the blank]." I am quite confident that ChatGPT would be (or will soon become) perfectly capable of generating a semiotic analysis of practically any popular cultural topic given the enormous amount of relevant material to be found on the Internet for AI to aggregate, as well as the growing cultural familiarity of the word "semiotics" itself. I also wouldn't be surprised if the generated texts turned out to be rather astute—after all, as I have noted before, artificial intelligence and the semiotic method as I describe it in Signs of Life in the USA have a good deal in common insofar as both explore and identify significant patterns in human behavior. So, if you want to be sure that your students are discovering their own semiotic patterns and presenting them in their own words, DON'T (I repeat) present them with these kinds of open-ended assignments.

On the other hand, I very much doubt that ChatGPT would be able to make anything out of something like this: "After carefully situating your topic in an historically informed system of associations and differences, write an abductive analysis of it." Of course, you wouldn't want to write your instructions in quite this highly condensed a manner. If you are using (or have ever used) Signs of Life in your writing class, however, you will recognize that the gist of the semiotic method as it is presented in that book is contained in this sentence.  

This takes me to my recommended DO: DO create assignments that require your students to make explicit the particular elements of the semiotic method that they have employed in the formation of their own analyses.

My DO/DON'T recommendation, of course, is simply a version of traditional assignment-writing practices intended to ensure that the work that students turn in is their own, adapted in this instance for users of Signs of Life in the USA, and I wrote my assignments in precisely this manner when I was teaching my popular cultural semiotics classes. It was helpful to me, and I hope that it may prove helpful to you.


Photo by Jonathan Kemper (2023), used under the Unsplash License.

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.