Higher education must wrestle harder to escape ChatGPT’s death grip

Unless something is done, teaching and learning risks becoming a completely inauthentic spectacle, says Dan Sarofian-Butin

August 15, 2023
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In just a few weeks college students will be returning to campus. That is when the world will end.

I am exaggerating only slightly. I believe that this coming semester will be a tipping point as professors struggle with and ultimately succumb to all that ChatGPT has unleashed.

In his 1957 essay “The World of Wrestling”, Roland Barthes presciently noted that “the public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle”; and in this spectacle, “what the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself”.

While this might be relevant to World Wrestling Entertainment executive chair Vince McMahon (or Donald Trump), you say, what does it have to do with the death of the college classroom?


We have to begin by acknowledging an ugly truth: we have long known that going to college has only a tenuous connection to learning. Of course students learn; we’re just not really sure what they learn, how deeply they learn it, or whether they learned it from us. Rather, higher education, as any good social scientist will tell you, serves a signalling function in our society through credentialling. It’s an open secret, for example, that the “sheepskin effect” (when individuals with an academic degree earn more than otherwise comparable individuals without such a degree) is alive and well.

But until recently, we have all put up the good fight: I demand that students learn, and students more or less grudgingly acquiesce. Sometimes I yell a little louder, or try a new technique, or change my reading list. And sometimes students surprise me with their efforts, or maybe lack thereof. But we all accepted the perilous equilibrium of teaching and learning because, well, what else was there to do?

And then the world changed at the end of 2022 with the release of ChatGPT. Within six months we have seen ChatGPT’s output pass the Turing Test, ace the SATs and a dozen different advanced placement courses, and make it through the first year at Harvard. And with all due respect to Noam Chomsky – who claimed ChatGPT was “superficial and dubious” and its output “linguistic incompetence” – he and all the other haters out there have no clue. ChatGPT is a “stochastic parrot” able to easily mimic and manipulate linguistic forms to the extent that many of us have a hard time differentiating the real from the fake.

This is how the world will end.

Namely, using ChatGPT allows any and all students to submit decent written work on any academic subject, in any format, in any style, with the press of a button. Until now, we have always assumed that students’ written work served as a summary and synthesis of, and thus a proxy for, the process of learning. But ChatGPT’s ability to mimic such writing shreds that implicit relationship.

My feedback on students’ papers – “this is an elegant phrasing”; “expand this some more”; “I appreciate how you incorporated this idea”; “I think you are conflating two distinct issues” – becomes meaningless. Or, more precisely, the submission and grading of students’ work will become an exercise in “the image of passion, not passion itself”. What we used to think of as teaching and learning may become as inauthentic a spectacle as the wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin putting a death grip on John Cena. I will pretend to teach and you will pretend to learn.

Dear reader, we must move through the stages of grief if we are to come to terms with and confront this coming reality. We cannot pretend that ChatGPT does not exist; surveys suggest that anywhere between 30 and 90 per cent of college students admit to using it. And we can’t bargain our way out of this, somehow thinking we’re smart enough to catch these freeloaders. It’s enough to know that OpenAI quietly mothballed its detection system (“Classifier”) this summer, basically admitting that the company couldn’t reliably detect the output of its own product; if they can’t do it, neither can you.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we must accept and embrace ChatGPT in the college classroom.

There are many ways to do so. I, for example, am making ChatGPT my formal TA in my classroom this autumn, such that students will have to consult with it in every class and for every assignment. The American Psychological Association has its own suggestions, and there are oodles of other examples out there.

We, of course, don’t have this all figured out yet. But we have to do something, when our students return, to extricate the college classroom from Stone Cold ChatGPT’s all-too-real death grip.

Dan Sarofian-Butin is professor of education and founding dean of the Winston School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College, Massachusetts.

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Reader's comments (3)

"Wrestle harder"? "Death grip"? "Stage of grief"? No freshman comp? No editing? All the components of ChatGBT are long established and used by students for years. More and more teachers and professors speak to the constructive uses of AI in teaching. Why does this writer exhibit no awareness of everyday realties? And no ChatBOT cannot replace a human TA, not in real institution of higher education at least.
In response to graff.40's comments. Some teachers and professors indeed speak of the possibility of AI having a positive impact upon student learning, but no evidence yet exists to support such a hypothesis. In the interim, perhaps we should devise more interesting and novel essay topics to which ChatGPT simply cannot effectively respond.
Hyperbole much?


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