Facing My Fears of AI

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It’s time to confront my fear of student use of artificial intelligence (AI). I realized this reality the first week of June while attending Macmillan’s 2024 TechEd where I heard from fellow Peer Advocates about their experiences bringing AI into the college classroom.


I have been admittedly reluctant to allow any student use of AI for the obvious reason: cheating. At the same time, I’ve avoided a zero-tolerance policy by reasoning that if students are going to use AI I want them to know how to properly cite it. My approach to AI has been to create assignments that require so many variants that AI use is exceedingly complicated and therefore, I reason, less attractive to students. As a result I’ve had only one case (that I’m sure of) in the last year where a student used AI instead of submitting their own original work. 


Listening to my Peer Advocate colleagues at TechEd, however, made me question whether my approach has been short-sighted. If, for example, I am trying to help my students to be work-force ready, am I doing them a disservice by not allowing them some use of AI so that in an academic environment we can grapple with questions about appropriate and ethical uses? The history classroom, after all, is one of the best academic spaces in which to talk about sources. Do I need to start looking at AI as simply one more media source for consideration? 


Part of my struggle with the use of AI in student writing has been my concern that a large percentage of my students do not have a strong grasp on basic grammar and writing skills. This reality is painfully obvious to me at the start of each semester when I ask students to introduce themselves in our class discussion board. Asking the students to write about themselves not only provides me information such as preferred pronouns, majors, and career goals, but also a sample of their skill level in regards to writing. I’ve had several students come across as articulate in class only to present significant academic deficits in their writing assignments. These no-stakes introductions alert me to students who require extra support for their writing assignments during the semester. 


So what comes next? I have two plans for the summer to help move me from a place of fear and loathing of AI to one in which I better understand the role that the new technology may have in higher education.


First, along with more than 100 faculty at my college I will be participating in a summer read of Teaching with AI: A Practical Guide to a New Era of Human Learning (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2024). My college’s Center for Teaching Excellence supplied copies of the book at no charge to faculty interested in engaging in discussion of AI-related education during the 2024-25 academic year and I’m excited to hear my colleagues’ perspectives on the ideas presented by the authors when we return to campus in the fall.


Second, I plan to develop one low stakes AI-based assignment for my upper-level history students who undertake research projects during the semester. What that project will look like remains to be seen. Suggestions welcome! Drop a comment below or email me at: suzannekmccormack@gmail.com

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.