Thoughts on Writing

Happy Monday. Target’s offices are home to more than a few Eagles fans. It is an exciting morning to be the new guy from Kansas City. I do not know enough about football to gloat, but I was happy to return all the Eagles signs taped around my office over the last couple of weeks.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that I was about to return to the classroom to teach for the spring semester. I am teaching Research Methods to the Community Living Managers and a few other professionals from local agencies. Research courses are often unpopular. This is partly because statisticians invent several meanings for the same word, which leads to confusion on the part of the learner. Also, research can be difficult and often unfamiliar.

Teaching research methods is not only about the steps in doing research but more about teaching the process of actively thinking. The goal is to create a critical understanding for individuals who consume research to guide their professional practice.

This morning I talked with a former colleague who served as my first professional mentor. Her son is an English professor in Texas and is preparing to teach a course on advances in artificial intelligence that allow users to automate the writing process. This tech has been in the news lately, and frankly, I have taken to sticking my head in the sand with these types of advances.

At a time in my early career, my colleagues came to me to sort out their tech issues before going to IT. I do not claim to have been an expert Mac user, but I was an active and engaged user. Today when something goes wrong with my computer, phone, or tablet, I hand it to my 19-year-old, and she rolls her eyes. As a child, my grandfather brought me his Casio digital watch as we moved into and out of daylight savings time. I quickly and efficiently reset the time on the watch and handed it back with what is now an all-too-familiar eyeroll.

I need help with the idea of AI technology that has the power to compose text in the academic setting. It is easy to see why this tech has a place in industrial or technical writing. If software can help IKEA write better directions, I am all in. But, in an academic space learning to write effectively is as much about the process of thinking as it is the production of an essay.

The printing press’s advent ushered in an era of widespread access to the written word.  Greater access to books increased the need for literacy and served to advance society.  Widespread access to the internet created freedom of information with multifaceted impacts on society and the lives of individuals. In each of these examples, the advancement of technology was a tide that lifted all ships.

I worry that essay automatic artificial intelligence is a tide that might sink all ships; when students view the paper as a result and find ways to generate the essay, the steps of organization, thinking, editing, and restructuring fall by the wayside. The essay may be a point in the process easily definable as ‘the end,’ but if we view writing as a function of the thinking process, the steps to get to the end are where the value lives. When we shift our thinking away from the value of the process to the end, something is lost.  I am not sure we have a full picture of that loss’s impact, which worries me.