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In what seems like an eon ago (well, 1983 to be exact), Lisa Ede and I published an anecdotal essay in Rhetoric Review called “Why Write . . . Together?” recounting our experience of co-authoring and questioning the model of the solitary author. In 1986, we published a research update on this question and on our ongoing research into the ubiquity of collaborative writing everywhere, it seemed, except in the academy in general and in English departments in particular.
We went on to write a book (Singular Texts / Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing) and a collection of essays (Writing Together: Collaboration in Theory and Practice) that furthered our argument, and we both continued to write collaboratively and to teach students to write collaboratively. We were convinced that writing, one of our oldest technologies, is thoroughly collaborative—that even when we are writing alone at our desks, we are in conversation with many others whose voices help to animate and shape what we write. We spent most of our efforts over several decades focusing on the third word in our title: “together,” rather than the first two: “why write?”
But today, the rise of artificial intelligence in general and the proliferation of chatbots in particular signal a need to revisit the question of “Why Write?” If AI can produce texts for us, why should we write? This is a question teachers of writing are beginning to put to students across the country (and perhaps the world). It’s a question all teachers of writing should be thinking about and answering for ourselves—and then asking our students as well.
I’ve tried to do just that by making a list of all the writing that I do and then trying to decide which I would be glad to ask a chatbot to take over—and which I would insist on retaining for myself. I have been surprised by how little of the writing I do I really want to relinquish, at least after giving the question serious thought. At first, I was attracted to the idea of asking some digital “writing assistant” to summarize works for me—and that is still attractive. But then I started thinking about what I would lose in the process: all the thinking, the analyzing, the synthesizing that goes on when I summarize something, and I had second thoughts.
How about asking such an “assistant” to write a tenure review? During summers when I undertook to write five or six such reviews, I often wished for help! But on reflection, again, I thought of what I would lose if I relegated that assignment to ChatGPT or its cousin. I gain enormously from reading and studying the scholarly work of colleagues: I wouldn’t want to give that up.
These reflections led me back to the question, “why write?” It seems clear that I write to think and to learn, for a start. I also write to make connections with others I care deeply about. And I write to try to understand myself and my relationships, my dreams and goals, and my failures. Could an AI “assistant” help with such writing? Maybe. But also maybe not.
I think the time is ripe for a nationwide asking of this question, posing it to all students in all our classes. What writing would they gladly give up—and why? And what writing do they want to hold on to—and why?
Asking and answering these questions will be valuable in themselves. But doing so will, I believe, also be useful for scholars of writing. At this very moment, we need to take a deep breath and a step or two back and engage in some basic definitional work. What, today, IS writing? (And how can we best define it? What theory or theories can account for and support it?) What, today, IS a writer/author? And what, today, IS collaborative writing—what are its modes and modalities, its varying permutations? These deceptively simple questions are enormously complex, calling for the very best thinkers about the writing and rhetoric to engage them. But they are also very exciting, since probing them, playing out different responses to them, creating and testing new definitions will help us pave the way for our own future.
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