Sunday, January 29, 2023

All Hail Our AI Overlords! ChatGPT in the Classroom

Whether you're a writer, artist, teacher, or really anyone who deals with creative work, AI is quickly becoming a boogeyman for all of us. And by boogeyman, I don't mean some made-up threat that only fools are afraid of. I mean an actual terrifying monster with the capability of devouring our livelihoods and turning our lives to misery, like the one that lived under my bed in my childhood home. I have the privilege of belonging to a very forward-thinking and close-knit English department who not only works hard to stay ahead of academic and technological trends, but also communicates continuously outside of meetings, in the halls, and in our department chat. When the subject of ChatGPT came up, as it has for teachers all over the country trying to get honest writing and critical thinking out of their students, the reaction was, in a word, fear.

First, I made an account, because I was the only one brave enough to feed our digital overlords the personal info that I assumed they already had. However, I have to say, I was highly offended by the CAPTCHA test I had to complete before completing the sign-up. You might be familiar with CAPTCHA tests for many other online accounts, which tests whether or not the potential user is an actual human. This is generally accomplished by the uniquely human task of clicking a box, or, if the method of box-clicking seems suspiciously robotic, choosing pictures with street lights or cars or trees in them, or really any object that robots apparently have no knowledge of. One shudders to think what we'll do when the bots evolve enough to recognize a bicycle. What you might not know is that CAPTCHA stands for "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart." Sorry for the digression here, but I really was offended. Heated, even. How dare you, sir. The unmitigated gall of a machine, a bot, demanding that I prove my humanity. It felt like being required to take a background check to get into the underground gambling den.

Anyway, once I got over my outrage and indignation, I started running the queries we all agreed would be most concerning to our profession, and things got really scary, really fast. The first task we gave it was a simple essay on a prompt from To Kill a Mockingbird. I tried to make it a little more difficult for the bot by asking it to quote both the novel and another source. It dashed off a basic five-paragraph essay in less than a minute - nothing special, but certainly one that could pass for the work of an eighth through tenth grader.

So then I tried to turn up the heat with something more difficult, comparing two texts, each one somewhat challenging, on a very specific theme, with quotes from each. The results are below:

An essay comparing the theme of old age in both Beowulf and Tennyson's "Ulysses"

Again, not brilliant, but the more I tinkered with it, the more "mature" and "insightful" its responses became. If I just fed it the prompt, it seemed as if the bot just quit when it thought it had answered the question, just like many of my students. No flair or style, no elaboration, application, or introspection. But when I added details to the prompt - how many words, what style, specific beats to touch on - it met those demands with shocking facility. On the other hand, I did notice a sort of tipping point. If I gave it just the prompt, it spat out a short essay that got right to the point and did exactly what I asked of it. If I asked for a little more detail or specific style, it delivered that without tipping its hand, so to speak. But at some point, if I asked too much of the algorithm, or whatever is driving the thing, it sort of went haywire and started devolving into gibberish, not in the sense of non-words or poorly constructed sentences, but in that is seemed like an essay put together by a group of students who weren't allowed to see the previous student's contribution to the whole. In other words, the bot ended up saying a lot of things that in themselves made sense, but either didn't contribute to the main idea or didn't respond directly to the prompt. I think one of my colleagues said it showed its lack of soul.

Still, it bothered all of us that it could produce passable text that we didn't know how to detect as unoriginal or plagiarized, because it isn't actually unoriginal. The text it produces is spontaneously created, just not by the student, or by any human. It's the creative work of a bot which has read about five million texts and has learned how to imitate the patterns and cadences of the desired genre it's asked to produce. We wondered what would happen if we asked it for something more human, a personal essay on an emotional topic. Turning to the college entrance prompts, another concern for admissions boards across the nation, we fed it a personal prompt and the results were likewise interesting. I took a video of this one to demonstrate how quickly it writes(?), creates(?), or whatever you want to call it. 

Again, there's a soulless quality to the writing, the trappings of emotion and personality, but no details or human touchpoints. It really does read like a robot read a million personal essays and just distilled them all down to the most common factors, leaving out anything with any heart.

Then we got silly.

What if we asked it to write a sermon? Specifically, a sermon on something distinctly human and somewhat controversial, like marriage. How about an interpretation of Ephesians 5, the instructions to husbands?

Chilling is the word we hit on, although it's interesting that the bot is a little progressive in its theology. 

But forget about sermons. We know that some pastors out there have been caught plagiarizing, and I can see this AI becoming the next wave of that problem. But as disheartening as it might feel to find out your pastor wasn't really writing his sermons or considering his congregation's needs in preparing them, what about wedding vows? How would it feel to find out your husband got his "original" vows from a bot? Results follow:

ChatGPT results to the prompt to write wedding vows from a man to a woman who have dated for six years and met in psychology class in college.

I admit, I teared up a little reading this, not at the touching sentiment or the fear that some guy will inevitably use canned vows for his wedding, but at the idea that bots might some day be professing their love and pledging their troth to other bots. Or humans, I guess.

Jokes aside, all of my colleagues came away fro the experiment with three findings:

1) That the bot can produce solid writing that meets the demands of a simple prompt and could pass for middle school or possibly high school work.

2) That such work is generally unemotional and tends to be very generic in its responses. It does a great job at incorporating quotes into its arguments, but the arguments themselves are passionless and uninspired.

3) Since a good deal of our students' writing is already solid, passionless, and uninspired, we need to develop a strategy for determining whether the text a student submits is their own or AI generated, and we need to do it now.

The major plans that we brainstormed include handwritten first drafts for every assigned essay, written in class under supervision/assistance. That way, we can compare later, typed drafts to the handwritten original to determine if the student has used any unauthorized help. In addition, we're a one-to-one Chromebook school, so we're looking into the possibility of disabling the internet connection and forcing students to use Google Docs offline - essentially turning their laptop into a typewriter, temporarily. This would, hopefully, deliver us the same honest work as pen and paper, without us having to decipher their handwriting. 

Other than that, we're at a loss. There are supposed AI detectors that can determine whether the student used a bot, but they're not perfect, and I have a moral and professional problem with telling a parent I'm charging their student with academic dishonesty based on the word of a bot ratting out another bot. As with so many other developments in academia, this is just one more technology that is not only going to facilitate cheating, but also advantage privileged students with the most access to computers and the highest degree of "benefit of the doubt" from their teachers. For those reasons, we have to deal with this new tech and find ways to either combat it or team up with it, until, of course, it becomes self-aware and decides that we are the real problem, at which point high school essays won't matter so much anymore.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Multiracial or Transcultural: Part 2

I'd like to follow up on a post from last month concerning interracial marriages and the differences between multiracial marriage and transcultural marriage. To recap, multiracial marriage means exactly what it sounds like - a marriage between two people of different races or ethnicities. Nothing more. Transcultural marriage, on the other hand, according to Kyle J. Howard, means "two people of different cultures come together & build a family that represents both of them," where "both spouses' cultural backgrounds are honored and celebrated." I couldn't agree with the distinction more, and I've seen examples of both. I've witnessed interracial marriages where one partner felt consistently disrespected and excluded because of their culture, either by their spouse or by in-laws whom the spouse failed to put in check. I've also seen interracial marriages in which both partners made the effort to celebrate and respect the other's culture and traditions.

So the question to me is, how do I know if I'm in a transcultural relationship, especially before I commit to marriage, instead of a possibly toxic and merely "multiracial" one? How can I be sure that my partner is willing to truly unite with all of the parts of me, my family, and my culture? I'm not an expert in the sense of marriage therapy or counseling, but I do have some markers I would look for based on my own experience.

1) Does your spouse spend intentional time with your family? Do they look forward to seeing your parents and siblings, along with all of the extended family, play cousins and fake aunties? Or do they avoid family events, always finding some excuse why they can't be there? When they're around your family, do they isolate themselves or do they engage as if they're trying to become part of the family? Or worse, are they always making snide remarks about what people are doing, and expecting you to participate in their mockery or laugh at their jokes? A person who tolerates, desires, or even "loves" a person of another race, ethnicity, or culture, but can't stand to be around any others of the same group is very likely tokenizing their partner. It may be that they have some fetish, and only want to dip their ... toe ... into those dark waters to see what it feels like, with no real respect for the actual personhood of those they claim to love. It may be that they think of their partner as "one of the good ones," someone to be tutored and reimagined like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, a prodigy who needs to be rescued from their race. Either way, it's a bad sign if you are the only person of your race that your partner can tolerate being around. It's very possible that you've become their "Black friend." 

However, I would add that some people are naturally introverts, like myself, and find it difficult to fully participate in social events. For us it's draining to be around so many people and feel like we're in the spotlight, expected to perform. That dynamic should be considered. Still, there's a crucial difference between the guy on the fringe of the party watching the festivities and smiling at all the joy and fun and interacting in positive, if more low-key, ways with your family members, as opposed to the guy on the fringe smirking at what he sees as antics and madness, flexing his imagined superiority by refusing to join in, or even joining in as some sort of parody or insult. 

2) Does your spouse or partner make an attempt to speak the language? I'm not talking about the cringy appropriation of slang that often sets out teeth on edge, but actually learning a second language. If your culture includes a different language or dialect, does your partner make an attempt to learn that language and use it around you and your people? Or do they treat it as an inferior language, worthy of mockery or at best, not worth learning? This is especially important for English speakers. As much as I love my language, it has often been used as a weapon, and often forced on others against their will. There's a little bit of that colonizer instinct in forcing in-laws to communicate with you in your language rather than making an effort to really understand them in theirs. It may take time, but in the long run, you gain not only a deepened trust and relationship with your spouse and in-laws, but you also become bilingual, and in ways that other people don't have access to. Immersing oneself in Spanish or Kreyol or Xhosa for a weekend is far more effective in achieving fluency than several months of Duolingo or Rosetta Stone lessons. 

In addition, the desire to learn your in-laws' language should apply if your spouse is a child of deaf parents. ASL is a beautiful language, and becoming not only more popular today, but also more useful in social and professional settings. If you have an opportunity to learn to sign in order to connect with an in-law, as opposed to isolating them or yourself from the family functions, you should definitely do so.

Overall, the effort a partner makes to engage on equal terms with in-laws is a good predictor of whether the marriage is, or will be, merely multiracial or truly transcultural. The desire to separate oneself from in-laws or extended family can be a sign of problems down the road. It's true that some in-laws can be toxic and should probably be avoided even by the blood relative, but barring that danger, a partner's attempt to isolate a partner, spouse, or lover from their family or from other elements of their culture can be a bright red flag warning of impending abuse and toxicity. I've been blessed with wonderful in-laws who have welcomed me and shared their home, food, language, and culture with me, and I've tried to do the same for my wife, encouraging her to form relationships with my relatives. Every time I see my wife engaged with my family, I get a little choked up and think to myself, "at least they're not bothering me for a while."