Reconsidering and Revaluing Academic Writing in the Age of AI

By Kristina Aikens, PhD, Program Director, Writing Support, StAAR Center

What are the pedagogical benefits of writing as an activity for students? What makes good writing? Even if you have taken the answers to these questions as self-evident before, new tools like ChatGPT have revealed the importance of considering why we assign writing, how we assess and respond to writing, and even at its most existential level, why we need human-produced writing in the first place.

Students are already using ChatGPT, sometimes in unexpected ways. Some faculty have wondered whether they should eliminate writing assignments altogether, which would obviously stifle the development of writing skills. Others have suggested they might only grade writing that is completed in class by hand, but this practice is inequitable to students with disabilities and multilingual writers. Attempts to “AI-proof” assignments or use AI detection software threatens to create an adversarial and mistrustful relationship between instructors and students. Not all faculty need to shift our focus to teaching students explicitly how to use AI effectively, though some instructors will do so with positive results. We can no longer assume, however, that the benefits of writing are self-evident. If we want students to develop writing skills, we will need to think carefully about when and how we promote those skills. Perhaps we could use ChatGPT’s ease with certain essay conventions and grammatical structures as an impetus to re-consider and re-value the aspects of writing that are most worth our attention.

Writing as a Process:

One of the most common struggles I see for experienced and new writers alike is embracing the idea of writing as an iterative and recursive process. Most writers—myself included—fantasize that the first draft will also be the final draft. The fact that it probably won’t be is a lesson we must repeatedly learn. And yet, our obsessions with efficiency and perfection can make process a hard sell—even when its greatest benefit involves taking the pressure off each individual writing activity. How might you scaffold writing assignments to help students break down different steps of the writing process? How might you encourage revision—not just editing—so that students can see the benefit of truly reworking their ideas to get closer to what they want to say? Sharing and normalizing your own writing struggles can also help students understand writing as iterative and recursive.

Writing as a Practice:

Related to writing as a process, writing as a practice encourages the habit of writing. Most students I know, both undergraduate and graduate, write a lot in their personal lives (emails, texts, even journals) but not enough in school settings to feel confident about using writing as a method for thinking. Many of these students perceive academic writing either as an enormous project (such as term paper) or as a test, sometimes of basic knowledge. Students who use ChatGPT tend to employ it for low-stakes assignments (such as Canvas posts or homework) they think will go unnoticed. This does not mean we should eliminate low-stakes writing, but we might think about it differently and explain its benefits more explicitly. To exercise the writing habit, consider including more informal, un-assessed writing into your class. Faculty often feel they must read everything a student writes or use writing to test knowledge, but students benefit from informal writing the professor doesn’t assess. By encouraging more ungraded, low-stakes writing in and outside of class, we can help students build transferable writing skills.

Writing as identify formation:

Through a process of iterating, articulating, and revising written ideas, students can begin to form and re-form both their scholarly and their personal identities in ways that combines creativity, emotion, and intellectual rigor. Yet, too often academic writing prefers convention to originality and ignores embodiment and emotion altogether. For many years, academic writing has been criticized for being overly dry and formulaic, lacking in imagination and humanity. At times, grammar is overemphasized at the expense of more important complexities of writing. Moreover, AI contributes to a loss of language diversity that was already well underway, and students who haven’t yet figured out their writing voice might not be able to make informed choices about AI’s suggestions for their writing. What if our writing assignments were more personal, more relevant, more explicitly reflective? Less focused on efficiency, convention, and idiosyncratic preferences? What if we acknowledged the emotions students have when they’re writing about their own communities or ideas they cared about deeply? What if we encouraged students to explore language in ways that connect deeply to their backgrounds and identities, rather than making them conform to someone else’s language and style? How might we empower students to take real ownership of their voices as writers?

Writing as an opportunity for collaboration and human interaction:

For many years, those of us in the writing center world have tried to overturn the stereotype of the lone writer who creates independently without input from others. Even as academic culture depends on collaboration and peer review, this image of the solitary writer persists. ChatGPT has in some sense popularized writing assistance, but ChatGPT currently cannot approximate the depth of human collaboration. How might we encourage more students to collaborate with human beings—whether it’s their professors or TAs, their classmates, or Tufts writing consultants—for a richer engagement with their writing than a chatbot can offer?

This fall, some faculty will incorporate ChatGPT into their classes, some will prohibit its use, and some will define exactly when ChatGPT is permissible and when it isn’t. As you consider your own approach, try neither to ignore the technology nor assume students will want to use it.

Some general questions you might ask yourself when preparing your policies include:

  • What are the pedagogical goals of the writing you assign? How do you articulate those goals to students? How do you use writing to promote process, complexity, revision?
  • How would you feel if students use AI in parts of an assignment? What alternatives are you providing (such as office hours) or reminding students of (Tufts’ writing consultations, for example)? How will you convey those expectations and alternatives to your students?

As we assess our relationship to writing in higher education, we might discard conventions or specific assignments that no longer serve us, consider new approaches, and re-value practices that have been taken for granted. Defining and articulating the benefits of writing is crucial if we wish to retain writing as integral to our educational goals.

See Also

Designing Courses in the Age of AI (Teaching@Tufts)

Artificial Intelligence Resources for Tufts Faculty and Staff (CELT)

This fall’s 2023 series of roundtables about AI