AI and all that jazz

So AI is producing academic writing that is pretty believable. The new byline is “written by Chat GBT et al”. What are we to make of this development? Here’s a bit of what I’m fretting about…

Some people think that because AI is detectable and terribly klutzy it isn’t dreadfully worrying. But others argue that while klutzy is the case now, AI (and AI writing) is inevitably going to get better. And much less easy to detect. The implications for assessment, peer review etc are obvious. The solutions not so much. So it’s not so surprising that there’s a lot of conversation about to how to use AI in academic work/writing in ways that are ethical as well as time-saving.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not automatically hostile to AI. I’m not averse to time saving tools. But just because a tool exists doesn’t mean that it needs to be used, or used for everything. So, for me, what AI can write is not the same as what writing AI should be used for.

Perhaps bread is my analogy here. My partner makes the bread in our house. We prefer the taste and texture of his sourdough to machine made bread. And we know what goes into his bread. He makes his bread by hand and not in a bread machine – he uses only a mixer and oven. If we buy bread, and we do occasionally, we buy bread that is made the same way – by hand with only some help from a mixer and oven. I’m inclined to think about AI and academic writing in the same way.

I’m thinking about academic writing as an artisan practice. As craft. As something made by hand, with care. As something that takes time to develop. That doesn’t rise up in a couple of hours. How does AI sit with this view of academic writing?

Well, there are three AI related conversations I’d like to see much more of in my social media feed:

  • Is academic writing is simply a way of getting stuff down and out into the world? (This is the productivity conversation we’ve been having for quite some time.) Is academic writing all, or even mainly, about churning out papers and getting the citations up? Is it all about the product? How complicit are we being with performative institutions and individualised academic work practices if we focus our AI attention largely on speed and output? Or is there something important about the process of thinking and writing that is at stake? What happens if we lose sight of the scholarship in academic writing?
  • Is an academic text simply a mechanical and technical process, following a template, phrase bank or predetermined formula? (This is the conversation about the standardisation of academic writing and the sameness of a lot of academic texts). Is academic writing all about following convention? Is there a place for changing and breaking unwritten rules? How will invention happen in the new writing-plus-AI environment?
  • Where are the places for recognition and valuing of academic writing which bears the marks of human imagination, illogicalities, leaps of association, play and inventiveness? While there has been a loosening up of academic writing genres, these alt forms are still at the margins. And there is arguably a consolidation of dominant forms of academic writing through the proliferation of audit mechanisms. Do we want academic writing to show the heads and hands of its makers? What would that look like?

Oh, there’s such a big lesson in the AI moment for people like me who write a lot about academic writing and research.

It’s always tempting for those who write and teach about writing to focus largely on the standard genres and approaches. That’s partly because that’s what people say they want and need. And dealing with the standard forms is mostly what I do, although not exclusively. And as much as I try to avoid “tips”, “formula” and “templates”, and emphasise instead the interpretation and invention involved in academic writing, and the possible diversity of texts, there’s always the risk that my advice will be read as advocating a one-best-way.

My current dilemma is whether, in proposing strategies for an academic writing and researching repertoire, I still end up going in the same direction as the AI – more of the same in academic writing, rather than heterogeneous ways to communicate and converse. I hope that’s not the case.

But I need to think a lot more about how to respond in the current AI context.

Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in AI, ChatGBT and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to AI and all that jazz

  1. Hampson, Caroline 2022 (PGR) says:

    I loved reading this post. As a new PGR coming into academia after 35 years in a commercial business world a lot of my first two terms has been consumed with exploring and understanding the language of the academic world, and in particular the writing style.

    I definitely want to bring individuality to my research both in my approach and how I write about it. To a relatively inexperienced academic eye it feels like there is a formula and accepted way of writing which could be relatively easily replicated by a “clever” AI bot, even if sometimes they currently seem to attribute research outcomes to the wrong individual!

    My curiosity would be how do we as academic researchers and writers stay ahead of the curve so that we add the human individuality to what we do that only each of us can do in our own unique way?


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