TALIA? This is Not the AI Grading App I Was Searching For

(My friend Bill Hart-Davidson unexpectedly died last week. At some point, I’ll write more about Bill here, probably. In the meantime, I thought I’d finish this post I started a while ago about the webinar about Instructify’s AI grading app. Bill and I had been texting/talking more about AI lately, and I wish I would have had a chance to text/talk more about this. Or anything else).

In March 2023, I wrote a blog post titled “What Would an AI Grading App Look Like?” I was inspired by what I still think is one of the best episodes of South Park I have seen in years, “Deep Learning.”  Follow this link for a detailed summary or look at my post from last year, but in the nutshell, the kids start using ChatGPT to write a paper assignment and Mr. Garrison figures out how to use ChatGPT to grade those papers. Hijinks ensue.

Well, about a month ago and at a time when I was up to my eyeballs in grading, I saw a webinar presentation from Instructify about their AI product called TALIA. The title of the webinar was “How To Save Dozens of Hours Grading Essays Using AI.” I missed the live event, but I watched the recording– and you can too, if you want— or at least you could when I started writing this. Much more about it after the break, but the tl;dr version is this AI grading tool is not the one I am looking for (not surprisingly), and I think it would be a good idea for these tech startups to include people with actual experience with teaching writing on their development teams.

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Bomb Threat

It is “that time” of the semester, which is made all the much worse by it also being “that time” of the school year, mid-April. Everyone on campus– students of course, but also faculty and staff and administrators and everyone else– is peak stressed out because this is the time where everything is due. We’re all late. My students are late finishing stuff they were supposed to finish a couple weeks ago, and for me that means I’m late on finishing reading/commenting on/grading all of those things they haven’t quite finished. We are mutually late. And just to make the vibe around it all that much more spooky, there’s the remaining mojo of Monday’s eclipse.

So sure, let’s through a stupid bomb threat into the mix.

This entry from “EMU Today” (EMU’s public relations site) provides a timeline, and this story from The Detroit News is a good summary of the event.  I was in my office during all this, slowly climbing Grading Mountain (the summit is visible, the end is near, and yet the distance to that summit is further away than I had hoped) and responding to earlier student emails about missing class because of “stress” and such. Then I started getting messages from EMU’s emergency alert system. “Emergency reported in Wise, Buell, Putnam (these are dorms). Please evacuate the building immediately.” This was followed a few minutes later by a similar message about clearing several other dorms and an update that said it was a bomb threat.

EMU set up an emergency alert system a few years ago as part of a response to the rise in school and college campus shootings and violence happening around the country. They rolled this out at about the same time the campus security folks started holding workshops about how to properly shelter in place. I believe yesterday’s bomb threat was the first time this system was used for a threat like this. Previously, the only alerts I think I have received from this system (besides regular system tests) had to do with the weather, messages about campus being closed because of a snowstorm. It is also worth mentioning that this time, the alert system didn’t just send everyone a text. It also sent emails and robocalls, which means all the devices were all lit up in a few different ways.

Our son Will (who lives in Connecticut) texted me and Annette because, for whatever reason, he’s signed up to get these EMU emergency messages and he was concerned. Annette, who wasn’t on campus, wasn’t sure what was going on. When EMU alerted a few minutes after the evacuation posts that it was a bomb threat, I knew it had to be a hoax. I knew (well, I assumed) this in part because I have a good view of several of these dorms from my office, and it wasn’t like I was seeing cops and firefighters rushing into those buildings. Mostly what I saw were students hanging around outside the dorm looking at their phones.

I also thought immediately it was a hoax because 99.9999% of the time, bomb threats are hoaxes. One of the few colleagues of mine who was around the offices at the same time as me poked his head in my door and asked if I was going to still have class. “Well, yeah,” I said, “no one has said classes are cancelled.”

Rather than spending another hour or so prepping for my two afternoon classes and at least making a tiny bit more of a dent on all the grading as I had planned, I instead spent the time responding to student emails and then sending out group emails to my afternoon classes that yes indeed, we were meeting because EMU had not cancelled classes. Some were genuinely confused, wondering if we were still having class because the alerts did not make that clear. Some emailed me about the logistics of it all, basically “I don’t know if I can make it because I need to get back into my dorm room to get my stuff first,” or whatever. Some were freaked out about the whole thing, that they didn’t feel safe on campus, there was no way they were coming to class, etc. “Well, EMU has not cancelled classes, so we will be meeting,” I wrote back. And a couple of student seemed to sense this might be the excuse to skip they were hoping for.

About an hour after it all started and before my 2 pm class, we got another alert (or rather, three more alerts simultaneously) that the three dorms that had been named in the initial bomb threat had been inspected and declared clear. The other dorms had been evacuated as a precaution. At about 2:15, I got an email from the dean (forwarded to faculty by the department head) that no, classes were not cancelled.

Before my 2 pm class was over, EMU alerts sent a final message (again, three ways) to announce all was clear. But of course a lot of students were still freaked out– and for good reason, I guess. I talked with one student after my last class and after it was over who said he was nervous about spending the night in his dorm room, and I kind of understand that. But at the same time, maybe there was never anything to be afraid of?

I’m not saying that EMU overreacted because, obviously, all it takes is that 0.0001% chance where bombs go off simultaneously in the dorms like in the end of Fight Club. Not unlike a fire alarm going off in the dorms in the middle of the night (a regular occurance, I’m told), everyone knows (or at least assumes) is because of some jackass. But you still have to evacuate, you still have to call the fire department, etc.

The whole thing pisses me off. At least it was a hoax and it wasn’t a shooter, something that is always always somewhere on everyone’s minds nowadays. At least no one was hurt beyond being freaked out for a while. And at least there are only about two weeks before the end of the semester.

Once Again, the Problem is Not AI (a Response to Justus’ and Janos’ “Assessment of Student Learning is Broken”)

I most certainly do not have the time to be writing this  because it’s the height of the “assessment season” (e.g., grading) for several different assignments my students have been working on for a while now. That’s why posting this took me a while– I wrote it during breaks in a week-long grading marathon. In other words, I have better things to do right now. But I find myself needing to write a bit in response to Zach Justus and Nik Janos’ Inside Higher Ed piece “Assessment of Student Learning is Broken,” and I figured I might as well make it into a blog entry. I don’t want to be a jerk about any of this and I’m just Justus and Janos are swell guys and everything, but this op-ed bothered me a lot.

Justus and Janos are both professors at Chico State in California; Justus is a professor in Communications and is the director of the faculty development program there, and Janos is in sociology. They begin their op-ed about AI “breaking” assessment quite briskly:

Generative artificial intelligence (AI) has broken higher education assessment. This has implications from the classroom to institutional accreditation. We are advocating for a one-year pause on assessment requirements from institutions and accreditation bodies. We should divert the time we would normally spend on assessment toward a reevaluation of how to measure student learning. This could also be the start of a conversation about what students need to learn in this new age.

I hadn’t thought a lot about how AI might figure into institutional accreditation, so I kept reading. And that’s where I first began to wonder about the argument they’re making, because very quickly, they seem to equate institutional assessment with assessment in individual classes (grading). Specifically, most of this piece is about the problems caused by AI (supposedly) of a very specific assignment in a very specific sociology class.

I have no direct experience with institutional assessment, but as part of the Writing Program Administration work I’ve dipped into a few times over the years, I have some experience with program assessment. In those kind of assessments, we’re looking at the forest rather than the individual trees. For example, maybe as part of a program assessment, the WPAs might want to consider the average grades of all sections of first year writing. That sort of measure could tell us stuff about the overall pass rate and grade distribution across sections, and so on.  But that data can’t tell you much about grades for specific students or the practices of a specific instructor. As far as I can tell, institutional assessments are similar “big picture” evaluations.

Justus and Janos see it differently, I guess:

“Take an introductory writing class as an example. One instructor may not have an AI policy, another may have a “ban” in place and be using AI detection software, a third may love the technology and be requiring students to use it. These varied policies make the aggregated data as evidence of student learning worthless.”

Yes, different teachers across many different sections of the same introductory writing class take different approaches to teaching writing, including with (or without) AI. That’s because individual instructors are, well, individuals– plus each group of students is different as well. Some of Justus and Janos’ reaction to these differences probably have to do with their disciplinary presumptions about “data”: if it’s not uniform and if it not something that can be quantified, then it is, as they say, “worthless.” Of course in writing studies, we have no problem with much more fuzzy and qualitative data. So from my point of view, as long as the instructors are more or less following the same outcomes/curriculum, I don’t see the problem.

But like I said, Justus and Janos aren’t talking about institutional assessment. Rather, they devote most of this piece to a very specific assignment. Janos teaches a sociology class that has an institutional writing competency requirement for the major. The class has students “writing frequently” with a variety of assignments for “nonacademic audiences,” like “letters-to-the-editor, … encyclopedia articles, and mock speeches to a city council” meeting. Justus and Janos say “Many of these assignments help students practice writing to show general proficiency in grammar, syntax and style.” That may or may not be true, but it’s not at all clear how this was assigned or what sort of feedback students received. .

Anyway, one of the key parts of this class is a series of assignments about:

“a foundational concept in sociology called the sociological imagination (SI), developed by C. Wright Mills. The concept helps people think sociologically by recognizing that what we think of as personal troubles, say being homeless, are really social problems, i.e., homelessness.”

It’s not clear to me what students read and study to learn about SI, but it’s a concept that’s been around for a long time– Mills wrote about it in a book in the 1950s. So not surprisingly, there is A LOT of information about this available online, and presumably that has been the case for years.

Students read about SI and as part of their study, they “are asked to provide, in their own words and without quotes, a definition of the SI.” To help do this, students do activities like “role play” to they are talking to friends or family about a social problem such as homelessness. “Lastly,” (to quote at length one last time):

…students must craft a script of 75 words or fewer that defines the SI and uses it to shed light on the social problem. The script has to be written in everyday language, be set in a gathering of friends or family, use and define the concept, and make one point about the topic.

Generative AI, like ChatGPT, has broken assessment of student learning in an assignment like this. ChatGPT can meet or exceed students’ outcomes in mere seconds. Before fall 2022 and the release of ChatGPT, students struggled to define the sociological imagination, so a key response was to copy and paste boilerplate feedback to a majority of the students with further discussion in class. This spring, in a section of 27 students, 26 nailed the definition perfectly. There is no way to know whether students used ChatGPT, but the outcomes were strikingly different between the pre- and post-AI era.

Hmm. Okay, I have questions.

  • You mean to tell me that the key deliverable/artifact that students produce in this class to demonstrate that they’ve met a university-mandated gen ed writing requirement is a 75 word or fewer passage? That’s it? Really. Really? I am certainly not saying that being able to produce a lot of text should not be the main factor for demonstrating “writing competency,” but this seems more than weird and hard to believe.
  • Is there any instructional apparatus for this assignment at all? In other words, do students have to produce drafts of this script? Are there any sort of in-class work with the role-play that’s documented in some way? Any reflection on the process? Anything?
  • I have no idea what the reading assignments and lectures were for this assignment, so I could very well be missing a key concept with SI. But I feel like I could have copied and pasted together a pretty good script just based on some Google searching around– if I was inclined to cheat in the first place. So given that, why are Justus and Janos confident that students hadn’t been cheating before Fall 2022?
  • The passage about the “before Fall 2022” approach to teaching this writing assignment says a lot. It sounds like there’s no actual discussion of what students wrote, and the main instructions to students back then was to follow “boilerplate feedback.” So, in assessing this assignment, was Janos evaluating the unique choices students made in crafting their SI scripts? Or rather, was he evaluating these SI scripts for the “right answer” he provided in the readings or lectures?
  • And as Justus and Janos note, there is no good way to know for certain if a student handed in something made in part or in whole by AI, so why are they assuming that all of those students who got the “right answer” with their SI scripts were cheating?

So, Justus and Janos conclude, because now instructors are evaluating “some combination of student/AI work,” it is simply impossible to make any assessment for institutional accreditation. Their solution is “we should have a one-year pause wherein no assessment is expected or will be received.” What kinds of assessments are they talking about? Why only a year pause? None of this is clear.

Clearly, the problem here is not institutional assessment or the role of AI; the problem is the writing assignment. The solutions are also obvious.

First, there’s the teaching writing versus assigning it.  I have blogged a lot about this in the last couple years (notably here), but teaching writing means a series of assignments where students need to “show their work.” That seems extremely doable with this particular assignment, too. Sure, it would require more actual instruction and evaluation than “boilerplate feedback,” but this seems like a small class (27 students), so that doesn’t seem that big of a deal.

Second, if you have an assignment in anything that can successfully be completed with a simple prompt into ChatGPT (as in “write a 75 word script explaining SI in everyday language”), then that’s definitely now a bad assignment. That’s the real “garbage in, garbage out” issue here.

And third, one of the things that AI has made me realize is if an instructor has an assignment in a class– and I mean any assignment in any class– which can be successfully completed without having any experience or connection to that instructor or the class, then that’s a bad assignment. Again, that seems like an extremely easy to address with the assignment that Justus and Janos describe. They’d have to make changes to the assignment and assessment, of course, but doesn’t that make more sense than trying to argue that we should completely revamp the institutional accreditation process?

Starting 2024 With All First Year Writing/All the Time!

This coming winter term (what every other university calls spring term), I’m going to be doing something I have never done in my career as a tenure-track professor. I’m going to be teaching first year composition and only first year composition.  It’ll be quite a change.

When I came to EMU in 1998, my office was right next to a very senior colleague, Bob Kraft. Bob, who retired from EMU in 2004 and who passed away in December 2022, came back to the department to teach after having been in some administrative positions for quite a while. His office was right next to mine and we chatted with each other often about teaching, EMU politics, and other regular faculty chit-chat. He was a good guy; used to call me “Steve-O!”

Bob taught the same three courses every semester: three sections of a 300-level course called Professional Writing. It was a class he was involved in developing back in the early 1980s and I believe he assigned a course pack that had the complete course in it– and I mean everything: all the readings, in-class worksheets, the assignments, rubrics, you name it. Back in those days and before a university shift to “Writing Intensive” courses within majors, this was a class that was a “restricted elective” in lots of different majors, and we offered plenty of sections of it and similar classes. (In retrospect, the shift away from courses like this one to a “writing in the disciplines” approach/philosophy was perhaps a mistake both because of the way these classes have subsequently been taught in different disciplines and because it dramatically reduced the credit hour production in the English department– but all this is a different topic).

Anyway, Bob essentially did exactly the same thing three times a semester every semester, the same discussions, the same assignments, and the same kinds of papers to grade. Nothing– or almost nothing– changed. I’m pretty sure the only prep Bob had to do was change the dates on the course schedule.

I thought “Jesus, that’d be so boring! I’d go crazy with that schedule.” I mean, he obviously liked the arrangement and I have every reason to believe it was a good class and all, but the idea of teaching the same class the same way every semester for years just gave me hives. Of course, I was quite literally in the opposite place in my career: rather than trying to make the transition into retirement, I was an almost freshly-minted PhD who was more than eager to develop and teach new classes and do new things.

For my first 20 years at EMU (give or take), my work load was a mix of advanced undergraduate writing classes, a graduate course almost every semester, and various quasi-administrative duties. I occasionally have had semesters where I taught two sections of the same course, but most semesters, I taught three different courses– or two different ones plus quasi-admin stuff. I rarely taught first year composition during the regular school year (though I taught it in the summer for extra money while our son Will was still at home) because I was needed to teach the advanced undergrad and MA-level writing classes we had. And this was all a good thing: I got to teach a lot of different courses, I got a chance to do things like help direct the first year writing program or to coordinate our major and grad program, and I had the opportunity to work closely with a lot of MA students who have gone on to successful careers of their own.

But around six or seven years ago, the department (the entire university, actually) started to change and I started to change as well. Our enrollments have fallen across the board, but especially for upper-level undergraduate and MA level courses, which means instead of a grad course every semester, I tend to teach one a school year, along with fewer advanced undergrad writing classes, and now I teach first year writing every semester. One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about this arrangement is the students I work with in first year composition are different from the students I work with on their MA projects– but they’re really not that different, in the big picture of things.

And of course, as I move closer to thinking about retirement myself, Bob’s teaching arrangement seems like a better and better idea. So, scheduling circumstances being what they are, when it became clear I’d have a chance to just teach three sections of first year comp this coming winter, I took it.

We’ll see what happens. I’m looking forward to greatly reducing my prep time because this is the only course I’m teaching this semester (just three times), and also because first year writing is something I’ve taught and thought about A LOT. I’m also looking forward to experimenting with requiring students to use ChatGPT and other AI tools to at least brainstorm and copy-edit– maybe more. What I’m not looking forward to is kind of just repeating the same thing three times in a row each day I teach. Along these lines, I am not looking forward to teaching three classes all on the same days (Tuesdays and Thursdays) and all face to face. I haven’t done that in a long time (possibly never) because I’ve either taught two and been on reassigned time, or I have taught at least a third of my load online. And I’m also worried about keeping all three of these classes in synch. If one group falls behind for some reason, it’ll mess up my plans (this is perhaps inevitable).

What I’m not as worried about is all the essays I’ll have to read and grade. I’m well-aware that the biggest part of the work for anyone teaching first year writing is all the reading and commenting and grading student work, and I’ve figured out a lot over the years about how to do it. Of course, I might be kidding myself with this one….

Hot Chancellor Porn! (or, another interesting test of free speech, academic freedom and tenure)

There have been many stories in the last day or so about UW-LaCrosse’s chancellor, Joe Gow, and his wife Carmen Wilson (she had an unpaid position), and how they were fired after the Wisconsin system regents learned of their enthusiasm for sharing homemade porn online. I think this one from The New York Times sums things up well:  “University Chancellor Fired After Making Pornographic Videos With His Wife.” Here’s a longish quote:

In an interview on Thursday, Mr. [Joe] Gow and Ms. [Carmen] Wilson said that they believe they were fired over the videos, which included sex scenes together and with others under the username Sexy Happy Couple. Both said they felt it was wrong for the university to punish them over the videos, arguing that doing so infringes on their free speech rights.

“It’s not what we’re about in higher ed, to censor people,” Ms. Wilson said. She added that the videos are only available to those who are looking for such content. “If they seek it out, they’re free to do so,” she said.

Mr. Gow, 63, said he and his wife, 56, have made videos together for years but had decided recently to make them publicly available on porn websites and had been pleased by the response. They said they never mentioned the university or their jobs in the videos, several of which have racked up hundreds of thousands of views. The couple also has made a series of videos in which they cook meals with porn actors and then have sex.

“We have that show, ‘Sexy Healthy Cooking,’ where we interview performers and really humanize them in ways that you wouldn’t get in their other work,” Mr. Gow said. “It’s an interesting process, and the people that we work with are completely professional, and very great to work with.”

Now, not that I’m suggesting that anyone actually do this– not at all! not for a second!— but if one were to, hypothetically, google “Sexy Happy Couple” or “Sexy Healthy Cooking,” one just might get a sense of what Gow and Wilson are talking about. Or if someone went to a fairly well known and provocative website that has a name that rhymes with “corn tub” and do a search there, that someone might even get a more detailed view for free.

Gow and Wilson are correct: their videos have nothing to do with their work, and  you have to actively seek out their “cooking demonstrations.” It’s different from what happened with EMU’s former associate provost, Michael Tew, who was convicted for driving around Dearborn in a Jeep Wrangler while naked and whacking off, all with the windows and sunroof open. Tew was charged and convicted of indecent exposure– and imagine being stuck in traffic next to that guy. In contrast, you do have to go looking for these videos, and I agree that whatever happens between consulting adults and a salad spinner in the privacy of their own home is their own business.

Anyway, Gow and Wilson were both removed from their positions– though Gow is on a paid administrative leave and Wilson had some kind of “special assistant” position and was never a paid employee anyway. Gow and Wilson are arguing that they were fired for exercising their rights to free speech. In an interview published in USA Today (perhaps not surprisingly, neither of them have been shy about telling their story), Gow said “he decided to test that commitment [to free speech] since he had planned to leave the chancellorship soon anyway. ‘I felt a little bit more open about ”let’s raise these free speech issues and see how the board responds,” and now we know,’ he said.”

Like most college chancellors/presidents, Gow was also a tenured professor– in the Communications department. So what Gow was planning on doing was to return to the faculty, presumably to teach. And to be clear: Gow was fired as chancellor, but they couldn’t fire him from the faculty because he has tenure. At least not yet– the UW system regents has hired a law firm to figure out if they can strip him of tenure and kick him out for good.

It’ll be interesting to see how this turns out.

Typically (and I’m assuming this is the case with the UW system), tenured faculty are the only ones who have this kind of job security as it relates to free speech in the name of academic freedom. Tenured professors like me are happy to remind anyone and everyone of the importance of this kind of academic freedom for all kinds of reasons, but especially to foster the pursuit for knowledge. People don’t make new discoveries, write new plays, paint new things, or experiment with new ideas if they are afraid they’ll get fired or in trouble for saying the wrong thing. But I think it’s also important to remember that these protections do not exist unconditionally for anyone else on campus.

Students can be punished in all kinds of ways for speech acts, and Gow’s and Wilson’s case might very well be an example of that. If a bunch of students were filming porn in the dorms and they got caught, they might very well be expelled. Staff and administrators don’t have the same level of job security, and that is especially true with administrators.

Administrators can have a “real life” outside of the job, of course. They can have an active online presence, have a homemade YouTube cooking show, maybe even be in a band (as Gow and Wilson were, apparently). But unlike faculty, administrators are “at will” employees. They risk their jobs when they publicly criticize the university, or when they do anything else that might be considered, well, freaky. That’s why EMU’s Michael Tew was relieved of his duties as associate provost, and it’s also why Gow didn’t make his lifestyle public before he was ready to step down from the job.

But firing him completely, that’s different. Unlike EMU’s naked driving enthusiast, Gow and Wilson didn’t do anything illegal. I’m not especially interested in watching their show, but that’s obviously a speech act that deserves protection. So no, I don’t think Gow should be removed from his faculty position, and I think this is a clear example of why tenure matters.

Should Gow and Wilson been allowed to stay in their leadership positions? I honestly don’t know.

One of the questions I’ve always had about academic freedom is why are tenured professors the only ones on college campuses who have this? After all, students, staff, and administrators are all people who are (in theory) pursuing knowledge in one form or another. Why don’t they have the same level of freedom to say what they want? And what’s wrong if the guy in charge of the university and his wife post (and sell) porn videos online that no one at that university ever has to look at?

But on the other hand, it does create an awkward situation. I don’t think I’m a prude and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with porn that is consensual and that doesn’t involve minors. But it might be kind of weird to work with or take a class from either of these two now, especially if you did that google search I warned you not to do.

At the end of the day, I predict there will be some kind of “negotiated” settlement. I think that’s what happened with Tew at EMU. He was immediately removed as the associate provost, but as I understand it, he actually wasn’t fired entirely but instead returned to his faculty position– sort of. He never actually taught a class or anything; I believe he went on leave and he was allowed to retire.

My guess is that after this story is no longer in the news cycle, Gow and Wilson will make some kind of deal that will allow them to more gracefully exit the institution and retire, which would give them more time to devote to their hobbies anyway. A win-win situation, perhaps?

So, What About AI Now? (A talk and an update)

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk/lead a discussion called “So, What About AI Now?” That’s a link to my slides. The talk/discussion was for a faculty development program at Washtenaw Community College, a program organized by my friend, colleague, and former student, Hava Levitt-Phillips.

I covered some of the territory I’ve been writing about here for a while now and I thought both the talk and discussion went well. I think most of the people at this thing (it was over Zoom, so it was a little hard to read the room) had seen enough stories like this one on 60 Minutes the other night: Artificial Intelligence is going to at least be as transformative of a technology as “the internet,” and there is not a zero percent chance that it could end civilization as we know it. All of which is to say we probably need to put the dangers of a few college kids using AI (badly) to cheat on poorly designed assignments into perspective.

I also talked about how we really need to question some of the more dubious claims in the MSM about the powers of AI, such as the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this past summer, “GPT-4 Can Already Pass Freshman Year at Harvard.”  I blogged about that nonsense a couple months ago here, but the gist of what I wrote there is that all of these claims of AI being able to pass all these tests and freshman year at Harvard (etc.) are wrong. Besides the fact that the way a lot of these tests are run make the claims bogus (and that is definitely the case with this CHE piece), students in our classes still need to show up– and I mean that for both f2f and online courses.

And as we talked about at this session, if a teacher gives students some kind of assignment (an essay, an exam, whatever) that can be successfully completed without ever attending class, then that’s a bad assignment.

So the sense that I got from this group– folks teaching right now the kinds of classes where (according to a lot of the nonsense that’s been in MSM for months) the cheating with ChatGPT et al was going to just make it impossible to assign writing anymore, not in college and not in high school— is it hasn’t been that big of a deal. Sure, a few folks talked about students who tried to cheat with AI who were easily caught, but for the most part it hadn’t been much of a problem. The faculty in this group seemed more interested in trying to figure out a way to make use of AI in their teaching than they were in cheating.

I’m not trying to suggest there’s no reason to worry about what AI means for the future of… well, everything, including education. Any of us who are “knowledge workers”– that is, teachers, professors, lawyers, scientists, doctors, accountants, etc. etc.– needs to pay attention to AI because there’s no question this shit is going to change the way we do our jobs. But my sense from this group (and just the general vibe I get on campus and in social media) is that the freak-out about AI is over, which is good.

One last thing though:  just the other day (long after this talk), I saw what I believe to be my first case of a student trying to cheat with ChatGPT– sort of. I don’t want to go into too many details since this is a student in one of my classes right now. But basically, this student (who is struggling quite a bit) turned in a piece of writing that was first and foremost not the assignment I gave, and it also just happened this person used ChatGPT to generate a lot of the text. So as we met to talk about what the actual assignment was and how this student needed to do it again, etc., I also started asking about what they turned in.

“Did you actually write this?” I asked. “This kind of seems like ChatGPT or something.”

“Well, I did use it for some of it, yes.”

“But you didn’t actually read this book ChatGPT is citing here, did you?”

“Well, no…”

And so forth.  Once again, a good reminder that students who resort to cheating with things like AI are far from criminal masterminds.

A Belated “Beginning of the School Year” Post: Just Teaching

I don’t always write a “beginning of the school year” post and when I do, it’s usually before school starts, some time in August, and not at the end of the second week of classes. But here we are, at what seasonally always feels to me a lot more like the start of the new year than January.

This is the start of my 25th year at EMU. This summer, I selected another one of those goofy “thanks for your service” gifts they give out in five year increments. Five years ago, I picked out a pretty nice casserole dish; this time, I picked out a globe, one which lights up.

I wrote a new school year post like this was in 2021, and back then, I (briefly) contemplated the faculty buyout offer. “Briefly” because as appealing as it was at the time to leave my job behind, there’s just no way I could afford it and I’m not interested in starting some kind of different career. But here in 2023, I’m feeling good about getting back to work. Maybe it’s because I had a busy summer with lots of travel, some house guests, and a touch of Covid. After all of that, it’s just nice to have a change of pace and get back to a job. Or maybe it’s because (despite my recent case) we really are “past” Covid in the sense that EMU (like everywhere else) is no longer going through measures like social distancing, check-ins noting you’re negative, vax cards, free testing, etc. etc. This is not to say Covid is “over” of course because it’s still important for people to get vaxxed and to test.  And while I know the people I see all the time who are continuing to wear masks everywhere think lowering our defenses to Covid is foolish and it is true that cases right now are ticking up, the reality is Covid has become something more or less like the flu: it can potentially kill you, sure, but it is also one of those things we have to live with.

Normally in these kinds of new school year posts, I mention various plans and resolutions for the upcoming year. I have a few personal and not unusual ones– lose weight, exercise more, read more, and so on– but I don’t have any goals that relates to work. I’m not involved in any demanding committees or other service things, and I’d kind of like to keep it that way. I’m also not in the midst of any scholarly projects, and I can’t remember the last time that was the case. And interestingly (at least for me), I don’t know if I’ll be doing another scholarly project at this point. Oh, I will go to conferences that are in places I want to visit, and I’ll keep blogging about AI and other academic-like things I find interesting. That’s a sort of scholarship, I suppose. I’d like to write more commentaries for outlets like IHE or CHE, maybe also something more MSM. But writing or editing another book or article? Meh.

(Note that this could all change on a dime.)

So that leaves teaching as my only focus as far as “the work” goes. I suppose that isn’t that unusual since even when I’ve got a lot going on in terms of scholarly projects and service obligations, teaching is still the bulk of my job. I’ll have plenty to do this semester because I’ve got three different classes (with three different preps), and one of them is a new class I’m sort of/kind of making up as I go.

Still, it feels a little different. I’ve always said that if being a professor just involved teaching my classes– that is, no real service or scholarly obligations– then that wouldn’t be too hard of a job. I guess I’ll get to test that this term.

Computers and Writing 2023: Some Miscellaneous Thoughts

Last week, I attended and presented at the 2023 Computers and Writing Conference at the University of California-Davis. Here’s a link to my talk, “What Does ‘Teaching Online’ Even Mean Anymore?” Some thoughts as they occur to me/as I look at my notes:

  • The first academic conference I ever attended and presented at was Computers and Writing almost 30 years ago, in 1994. Old-timers may recall that this was the 10th C&W conference, it was held at the University of Missouri, and it was hosted by Eric Crump. I just did a search and came across this article/review written by the late Michael “Mick” Doherty about the event. All of which is to say I am old.
  • This was the first academic conference I attended in person since Covid; I think that was the case for a lot of attendees.
  • Also worth noting right off the top here: I have had a bad attitude about academic conferences for about 10 years now, and my attitude has only gotten worse. And look, I know, it’s not you, it’s me. My problem with these things is they are getting more and more expensive, most of the people I used to hang out with at conferences have mostly stopped going themselves for whatever reason, and for me, the overall “return on investment” now is pretty low. I mean, when I was a grad student and then a just starting out assistant professor, conferences were extremely important to me. They furthered my education in both subtle and obvious ways, they connected me to lots of other people in the field, and conferences gave me the chance to do scholarship that I could also list on my CV. I used to get a lot out of these events. Now? Well, after (almost) 3o years, things start to sound a little repetitive and the value of yet another conference presentation on my CV is almost zero, especially since I am at a point where I can envision retirement (albeit 10-15 years from now). Like I said, it’s not you, it’s me, but I also know there are plenty of people in my cohort who recognize and even perhaps share a similarly bad attitude.
  • So, why did I go? Well, a big part of it was because I hadn’t been to any conference in about four years– easily the longest stretch of not going in almost 30 years. Also, I had assumed I would be talking in more detail about the interviews I conducted about faculty teaching experiences during Covid, and also about the next phases of research I would be working on during a research release or a sabbatical in 2024. Well, that didn’t work out, as I wrote about here. which inevitably changed my talk to being a “big picture” summary of my findings and an explanation of why I was done.
  • This conference has never been that big, and this year, it was a more “intimate” affair. If a more normal or “robustly” attended C&W gets about 400-500 people to attend (and I honestly don’t know what the average attendance has been at this thing), then I’d guess there was about 200-250 folks there. I saw a lot of the “usual suspects” of course, and also met some new people too.
  • The organizers– Carl Whithaus, Kory Lawson Ching, and some other great people at UC-Davis– put a big emphasis on trying to make the hybrid delivery of panels work. So there were completely on-site panels, completely online (but on the schedule) panels held over Zoom, and hybrid panels which were a mix of participants on-site and online. There was also a small group of completely asynchronous panels as well. Now, this arrangement wasn’t perfect, both because of the inevitable technical glitches and also because there’s no getting around the fact that Zoom interactions are simply not equal to robust face to face interactions, especially for an event like a conference. This was a topic of discussion in the opening town hall meeting, actually.
  • That said, I think it all worked reasonably well. I went to two panels where there was one presenter participating via Zoom (John Gallgher in both presentations, actually) and that went off without (much of a) hitch, and I also attended at least part of a session where all the presenters were on Zoom– and a lot of the audience was on-site.
  • Oh, and speaking of the technology: They used a content management system specifically designed for conferences called Whova that worked pretty well. It’s really for business/professional kinds of conferences so there were some slight disconnects, and I was told by one of the organizers that they found out (after they had committed to using it!) that unlimited storage capacity would have been much more expensive. So they did what C&W folks do well: they improvised, and set up Google Drive folders for every session.
  • My presentation matched up well to my co-presenters, Rich Rice and Jenny Sheppard, in that we were all talking about different aspects of online teaching during Covid– and with no planning on our parts at all! Actually, all the presentations I saw– and I went to more than usual, both the keynotes, one and a half town halls, and four and a half panels– were really quite good.
  • Needless to say, there was a lot of AI and ChatGPT discussion at this thing, even though the overall theme was on hybrid practices. That’s okay– I am pretty sure that AI is just going to become a bigger issue in the larger field and academia as a whole in the next couple of years, and it might stay that way for the rest of my career. Most of what people talked about were essentially more detailed versions of stuff I already (sort of) knew about, and that was reassuring to me. There were a lot of folks who seemed mighty worried about AI, both in the sense of students using it to cheat and also the larger implications of it on society as a whole. Some of the big picture/ethical concerns may have been more amplified here because there were a lot of relatively local participants of course, and Silicon Valley and the Bay Area are more or less at “ground zero” for all things AI. I don’t disagree with the larger social and ethical implications of AI, but these are also things that seem completely out of all of our control in so many different ways.
  • For example, in the second town hall about AI (I arrived late to that one, unfortunately), someone in the audience had one of those impassioned “speech/questions” about how “we” needed to come up with a statement on the problems/dangers/ethical issues about AI. Well, I don’t think there’s a lot of consensus in the field about what we should do about AI at this point. But more importantly and as Wendi Sierra pointed out (she was on the panel, and she is also going to be hosting C&W at Texas Christian University in 2024), there is no “we” here. Computers and Writing is not an organization at all and our abilities to persuade are probably limited to our own institutions. Of course, I have always thought that this was one of the main problems with the Computers and Writing Conference and Community: there is no there there.
  • But hey, let me be clear– I thought this conference was great, one of the best versions of C&W I’ve been to, no question about. It’s a great campus with some interesting quirks, and everything seemed to go off right on schedule and without any glitches at all.
  • Of course, the conference itself was the main reason I went– but it wasn’t the only reason.  I mean, if this had been in, say, Little Rock or Baton Rouge or some other place I would prefer not to visit again or ever, I probably would have sat this out. But I went to C&W when it was at UC-Davis back in 2009 and I had a great time, so going back there seemed like it’d be fun. And it was– though it was a different kind of fun, I suppose. I enjoyed catching up with a lot of folks I’ve known for years at this thing and I also enjoyed meeting some new people too, but it also got to be a little too, um, “much.” I felt a little like an overstimulated toddler after a while. A lot of it is Covid of course, but a lot of it is also what has made me sour on conferences: I don’t have as many good friends at these things anymore– that is, the kind of people I want to hang around with a lot– and I’m also just older. So I embraced opting out of the social events, skipping the banquet or any kind of meet-up with a group at a bar or bowling or whatever, and I played it as a solo vacation. That meant walking around Davis (a lively college town with a lot of similarities to Ann Arbor), eating at the bar at a couple of nice restaurants, and going back to my lovely hotel room and watching things that I know Annette had no interest in watching with me (she did the same back home and at the conference she went to the week before mine). On Sunday, I spent the day as a tourist: I drove through Napa, over to Sonoma Coast Park, and then back down through San Francisco to the airport. It’s not something I would have done on my own without the conference, but like I said, I wouldn’t have gone to the conference if I couldn’t have done something like this on my own for a day.

Okay, Now Some Students Should Fail (or, resuming “normal” expectations post-pandemic)

In April 2020, I wrote a post with the headline “No One Should Fail a Class Because of a Fucking Pandemic.” This, of course, was in the completely bonkers early days of the pandemic when everyone everywhere suddenly sheltered in place, when classes suddenly went online, and when the disease was disrupting all of our lives– not to mention the fact that millions of people were getting very sick, and a lot of them were dying. Covid hit many of my students especially hard, which in hindsight is not that surprising since a lot of the students at EMU (and a lot of the students I was teaching back then) come from working poor backgrounds, or they are themselves adult (aka “non-traditional”) students with jobs, sig-Os, houses, kids, etc.

As I wrote back then, before Covid and when it came to things like attendance and deadlines, I was kind of a hard-ass. I took attendance every day for f2f classes and I also had an attendance policy of sorts for online classes. There was no such thing as an excused absence; I allowed students to miss up to the equivalent of two weeks of classes with no questions asked, but there are no exceptions for things like funerals or illness. Unless a student worked out something with me before an assignment was due, late work meant an automatic grade deduction. I’ve been doing it this way since I started as a graduate assistant because it was the advice I was given by the first WPA/professor who supervised and taught me (and my fellow GAs) how to teach. I continued to run a tight ship like this for two reasons: first, I need students to do their job and turn stuff in on time so I can do my job of teaching by responding to their writing. Second, my experience has been that if instructors don’t give clear and unwavering rules about attendance and deadlines, then a certain number of students will chronically not attend and miss deadlines. That just sets these students up to fail and it also creates more work for me.

Pretty much all of this went out the window in Winter 2020 when Covid was raging. EMU allowed students to convert classes they were enrolled in from a normal grading scheme to a “pass/fail” grade, which meant that a lot of my students who would have otherwise failed (or with bad grades) ended up passing because of this, and also because I gave people HUGE breaks. My “lighten up” approach continued through the 2020-21 and the 2021-22 school year, though because all of my teaching was online and asynchronous, the definition of “attend” was a bit more fuzzy. I kept doing this because Covid continued to be a problem– not as big of a problem as it was in April 2020, but lots of people were still getting infected and people were still dying, especially people who were stupid enough to not get the vaccine.

By the end of the 2021-22 school year, things were returning to normal. Oh sure, there was still plenty of nervousness about the virus around campus and such, but the end of the pandemic was near. The most serious dangers of the disease had passed because of a weaker version of the virus, vaccinations, and herd immunity. So I was ready for a return to “normal” for the 2022-23 school year.

But my students weren’t quite ready– or maybe a better way of putting it is Covid’s side-effects continued.

In fall 2022, I taught a f2f section of first year writing, the first f2f section for me since before the pandemic. Most of the students had been in all (or mostly) online classes since March 2020, meaning that this was most of their first semesters back f2f too. Things got off to a rough start with many students missing simple deadlines, blowing off class, and/or otherwise checked out in the first couple of weeks. I felt a bit the same way– not so much blowing stuff off, but after not teaching in real time in front of real people for a couple of years, I was rusty. It felt a bit like getting back on a bicycle after not riding at all for a year or two: I could still do it, but things started out rocky.

So I tried to be understanding and cut students some slack, but I also wanted to get them back on track. It still wasn’t going great. Students were still not quite “present.” I remember at one point, maybe a month into the semester, a student asked quite earnestly “Why are you taking attendance?” It took a bit for me to register the question, but of course! If you’ve been in nothing but online classes for the last two years, you wouldn’t have had a teacher who took attendance because they’d just see the names on Zoom!

There came a point just before the middle of the term when all kinds of students were crashing and burning, and I put aside my plans for the day and just asked “what’s going on?” A lot of students suddenly became very interested in looking at their shoes. “You’re not giving us enough time in class to do the assignments.” That’s what homework is for, I said. “This is just too much work!” No, I said, it’s college. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and it’s not too much, I assure you.

Then I said “Let me ask you this– and no one really needs to answer this question if you don’t want to. How many of you have spent most of the last two years getting up, logging into your Zoom classes, turning off the camera, and then going on to do whatever else you wanted?” Much nodding and some guilty-look smiles. “Oh, I usually just went back to bed” one student said too cheerfully.

Now, look: Covid was hard on everyone for all kinds of different reasons. I get it. A lot of sickness and death, a lot of trauma, a lot of remaining PTSD and depression. Everyone struggled. But mostly blowing off school for two years? On the one hand, that’s on the students themselves because they had to know that it would turn out badly. On the other hand, how does a high school or college teacher allow that to happen? How does a teacher– even a totally burnt-out and overworked one– just not notice that a huge percentage of their students are not there at all?

The other major Covid side-effect I saw last school year was a steep uptick in device distraction. Prior to Covid, my rule for cell phones was to leave them silenced/don’t let them be a distraction, and laptop use was okay for class activities like taking notes, peer review or research. Students still peeked at text messages or Facebook or whatever, but because they had been socialized in previous high school and college f2f classes, students also knew that not paying attention to your peers or the teacher in class because you are just staring at your phone is quite rude. Not to mention the fact that you can’t learn anything if you’re not paying attention at all.

But during Covid, while these students were sort of sitting through (or sleeping through) Zoom classes with their cameras turned off, they also lost all sense of the norms of how to behave with your devices in a setting like a classroom or a workplace. After all, if you can “attend” a class by yourself in the privacy of your own home without ever being seen by other students or the instructor and also without ever having to say anything, what’s the problem of sitting in class and dorking around with your phone?

I noticed this a lot during the winter 2023 semester, maybe because of what I assigned. For the first time in over 30 years of teaching first year writing, I assigned an actual “book” for the class (not a textbook, not a coursepack, but a widely available and best-selling trade book) by Johann Hari called Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention– and How to Think Deeply Again. This book is about “attention” in many different ways and it discusses many different causes for why (according to Hari) we can’t pay attention: pollution, ADHD misdiagnoses, helicopter parenting, stress and exhaustion, etc. But he spends most of his time discussing what I think is the most obvious drain on our attention, which are cell phones and social media. So there I was, trying to lead a class discussion about a chapter from this book describing in persuasive detail why and how cell phone addiction is ruining all of us, while most of the students were staring into their cell phones.

One day in that class (and only once!), I tried an activity I would have never done prior to Covid. After I arrived and set up my things, I asked everyone to put all their devices– phones, tablets, laptops– on a couple of tables at the front of the classroom. Their devices would remain in sight but out of reach. There was a moment where the sense of panic was heavy in the air and more than a few students gave me a “you cannot be serious” look. But I was, and they played along, and we proceeded to have what I think was one of the best discussions in the class so far.

And then everyone went back to their devices for the rest of the semester.

So things this coming fall are going to be different. For both the f2f and online classes I’m scheduled to teach, I’ll probably begin with a little preamble along the lines of this post: this is where we were, let us acknowledge the difficulty of the Covid years, and, for at least while we are together in school (both f2f and online), let us now put those times behind us and return to some sense of normalcy.

In the winter term and for my f2f classes, I tried a new approach to attendance that I will be doing again next year. The policy was the same as I had before– students who miss more than two weeks of class risk failing– but I phrased it a bit differently. I told students they shouldn’t miss any class, but because unexpected things come up, they had four excused absences. I encouraged them to think of this as insurance in case something goes wrong and not as justification for blowing off class. Plus I also gave students who didn’t miss any classes a small bonus for “perfect attendance.” I suppose it was a bit like offering “extra credit” in that the only students who ever do these assignments are the same students who don’t need extra credit, but a few student earned about a half-letter boost to their final grade. And yes, I also had a few students who failed because they missed too much class.

As for devices: The f2f class I’m teaching in the fall is first year writing and I am once again going to have students read (and do research about) Hari’s Stolen Focus. I am thinking about starting the term by collecting everyones’ devices, at least for the first few meetings and discussions of the book. Considering that Hari begins by recalling his own experiences of “unplugging” from his cell phone and social media for a few months, going for 70 or so minutes without being able to touch the phone might help some students understand Hari’s experiences a bit better.

I’m not doing this– returning to my hard-ass ways– just because I want things to be like the were in the before-times or out of some sense of addressing a problem with “the kids” today. I feel like lots of grown-ups (including myself) need to rethink their relationships with the devices and media platforms that fuel surveillance capitalism. At the same time, I think the learning in college– especially in first year writing, but this is true for my juniors and seniors as well– should also include lessons in “adulting,” in preparing for the world beyond the classroom. And in my experience, the first two things anyone has got to do to succeed at anything is to show up and to pay attention.

My Talk About AI at Hope College (or why I still post things on a blog)

I gave a talk at Hope College last week about AI. Here’s a link to my slides, which also has all my notes and links. Right after I got invited to do this in January, I made it clear that I am far from an expert with AI. I’m just someone who had an AI writing assignment last fall (which was mostly based on previous teaching experiments by others), who has done a lot of reading and talking about it on Facebook/Twitter, and who blogged about it in December. So as I promised then, my angle was to stay in my lane and focus on how AI might impact the teaching of writing.

I think the talk went reasonably well. Over the last few months, I’ve watched parts of a couple of different ChatGPT/AI presentations via Zoom or as previously recorded, and my own take-away from them all has been a mix of “yep, I know that and I agree with you” and “oh, I didn’t know that, that’s cool.” That’s what this felt like to me: I talked about a lot of things that most of the folks attending knew about and agreed with, along with a few things that were new to them. And vice versa: I learned a lot too. It probably would have been a little more contentious had this taken place back when the freakout over ChatGPT was in full force. Maybe there still are some folks there who are freaked out by AI and cheating who didn’t show up. Instead, most of the people there had played around with the software and realized that it’s not quite the “cheating machine” being overhyped in the media. So it was a good conversation.

But that’s not really what I wanted to write about right now. Rather, I just wanted to point out that this is why I continue to post here, on a blog/this site, which I have maintained now for almost 20 years. Every once in a while, something I post “lands,” so to speak.

So for example: I posted about teaching a writing assignment involving AI at about the same time MSM is freaking out about ChatGPT. Some folks at Hope read that post (which has now been viewed over 3000 times), and they invited me to give this talk. Back in fall 2020, I blogged about how weird I thought it was that all of these people were going to teach online synchronously over Zoom. Someone involved with the Media & Learning Association, which is a European/Belgian organization, read it, invited me to write a short article based on that post and they also invited me to be on a Zoom panel that was a part of a conference they were having. And of course all of this was the beginning of the research and writing I’ve been doing about teaching online during Covid.

Back in April 2020, I wrote a post “No One Should Fail a Class Because of a Fucking Pandemic;” so far, it’s gotten over 10,000 views, it’s been quoted in a variety of places, and it was why I was interviewed by someone at CHE in the fall. (BTW, I think I’m going to write an update to that post, which will be about why it’s time to return to some pre-Covid requirements). I started blogging about MOOCs in 2012, which lead to a short article in College Composition and Communication and numerous more articles and presentations, a few invited speaking gigs (including TWO conferences sponsored by the University of Naples on the Isle of Capri), an edited collection and a book.

Now, most of the people I know in the field who once blogged have stopped (or mostly stopped) for one reason or another. I certainly do not post here nearly as often as I did before the arrival of Facebook and Twitter, and it makes sense for people to move on to other things. I’ve thought about giving it up, and there have been times where I didn’t post anything for months. Even the extremely prolific and smart local blogger Mark Maynard gave it all up, I suspect because of a combination of burn-out, Trump being voted out, and the additional work/responsibility of the excellent restaurant he co-owns/operates, Bellflower.

Plus if you do a search for “academic blogging is bad,” you’ll find all sorts of warnings about the dangers of it– all back in the day, of course. Deborah Brandt seemed to think it was mostly a bad idea (2014)The Guardian suggested it was too risky (2013), especially for  grad students posting work in progress. There were lots of warnings like this back then. None of them ever made any sense to me, though I didn’t start blogging until after I was on the tenure-track here. And no one at EMU has ever had anything negative to me about doing this, and that includes administrators even back in the old days of EMUTalk.

Anyway, I guess I’m just reflecting/musing now about why this very old-timey practice from the olde days of the Intertubes still matters, at least to me. About 95% of the posts I’ve written are barely read or noticed at all, and that’s fine. But every once in a while, I’ll post something, promote it a bit on social media, and it catches on. And then sometimes, a post becomes something else– an invited talk, a conference presentation, an article. So yeah, it’s still worth it.