Are we witnessing the death of the writer? Facing the AI crossroads in class and on the page

I thought long and hard before writing this essay. I never want to sound like a relic screaming about good old days

Published September 23, 2023 3:59PM (EDT)

Chatbot writing, concept (Getty Images/Jorg Greuel)
Chatbot writing, concept (Getty Images/Jorg Greuel)

Last semester a bugle horn blared "Taps" inside my head after I assigned a review of "Kontemporary Amerikkan Poetry."

As part of the class's final portfolio, students were required to write a 3-4 page review of the poetry collection by John Murillo, winner of the 2021 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for his powerful explorations of identity, desire and violence in the modern world. At the end of the spring semester, while trying to grade final projects to be submitted to the registrar's online platform, I came across a student's review that scared me. It was problematic and disappointing, yet more than that — frightening. The student had not read the poetry collection. The premise of their entire review was based on the state of contemporary American poetry beginning in the 1950s, which was inaccurate and had nothing to do with the collection at all. The student didn't even care to investigate what the three Ks meant in Murillo's book title.

It was then I realized I was looking at my first AI-generated paper, likely written by ChatGPT. The student had plagiarized to my eye, submitting their final portfolio with supreme confidence that I had little to no intelligence, that I would not notice the subtle nor the blatant imperfections. Upon further investigation, all the flash fiction and poetry appeared to have been AI-generated. My emotions went from anger to disappointment to sadness to reading between the tea leaves — or, as they say in my home state of Alabama, I could peep through mud and see dry land. I understood, at that moment in time, that I was staring at the reordering of the ordered order and possibly my own death as a writer, one who is committed to independent thinking and uses creativity and language to deconstruct the intricate ills of society, but also the joys and humanism of everyday life.

Through the mud and peeping onto dry land, I was confronted with the possibility that writers are now in a battle to confront: their very existence as creative minds, not to mention their intellectual property, as the Writers Guild of America's ongoing strike in Hollywood shows. On that dry land, I stood witness to ruin and rubble against the backdrop of an invisible message resting on a cloud in the darkened sky that offered this cautionary tale: For all the good AI can and will bring, it will also leave devastation in its wake, and writers will drown in the undertow.

Dear Reader, with supersonic speed new constructs of artificial intelligence (AI) are being integrated into the contours of societal living, and for all the wonderful things AI can and has accomplished, there is also an underlying sentiment of concern on college and university campuses, and more specifically in English and creative writing programs. The scramble has now begun within these academic programs to address not only what this means to pedagogical practices, but how these practices will affect the act of writing going forward. Me, personally, I am not feeling the process of submitting a set of parameters to have artificial intelligence craft a draft of a poem I did not create myself, let alone place my name on it. Dear Reader, I also thought long and hard before writing this essay. I never want to sound like that person that time has passed by, a relic screaming in a dark ocean about nostalgia, the good old days, standing in the way of progress or advancement of the human race.

To be clear, we have been living with AI for a while. According to Forbes, these are some of the ways AI is already integrated within our everyday lives: "opening your phone with face ID, social media, sending an email or messages, Google Search, Digital Voice Assistant, Smart home devices, Banking and Amazon recommendations." I would also add TVs, the weather, Siri, aviation control, space exploration. The list can go on and on.

I have never wanted to be the unprogressive, afraid-of-technology type of writer or professor.  

However, this ain't that. This is different.                    

"I can mimic Toni Morrison, but I can't sustain that mimicry for a whole novel nor provide the million nuanced understandings that came from a lifetime of living from her particular perspective."

If there is such thing as a crossroads — that real or mythological place at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson was said to have met a bent-over elderly man walking with a cane and cap over his forehead (whom many would call Papa Legba or Eshu or Eleggua, that trickster orisha in African theology who seeped into the lexicon of American life via the slave trade, always reemerging to subvert) who gifted him an unexplainable talent that came with consequences and perhaps even his poisoned death — I would argue we are now at that intersection, a converging point where writers must collectively ask themselves if they are willing to sell their creative souls for the convenience of a hand clap, some sort of ego-derived praise, to take the easy-lazy path that requires no deep investigation, no deep learning, where you drive up, place your order, and pick up a short story to go.

To further understand this problem, I reached out to writers in administrative roles to get their take on the state of AI.

"We are going to have to find ways to teach students how to use AI as a tool and not a crutch," said Dr. Jaqueline Trimble, an award-winning poet who lives and writes in Montgomery, Alabama, and is chair of English at Alabama State University. "Nothing is going to stop cheating 100%, but if we learn to use AI creatively and teach students how to do it, they may be less likely to cheat, especially if we have better-designed assignments that are more cheat-resistant."

Dr. Christopher Dowd, chair of my English Department at the University of New Haven and a fiction and nonfiction writer, said he worries that AI will damage the learning of some students in English courses if they use it to bypass doing the work. 

"I also worry that it will damage English Departments long term as some students going forward will not see value in being able to read critically and write well, as they believe those are tasks that can just be delegated to AI," Dowd said. "This could lead to a decline in the perceived value of English and the presence of English Departments in the future. And this would come concurrently with a potentially grave decline in literacy and basic writing ability of college students."

I asked both writers how alarmed they are at the ease and speed with which AI technology is being introduced. Do they think the practice of creative writing — poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction — is in jeopardy? Where does AI leave the writer? 

"I can mimic Toni Morrison, but I can't sustain that mimicry for a whole novel nor provide the million nuanced understandings that came from a lifetime of living from her particular perspective. Every bit of technology changes the practice of writing — the pencil did, the printing press did, the word processor did, Amazon did, but we are still here," she said. "Amazon will be able to produce a lot more cheap, predictable books. Some networks will be able to churn out a lot of cheap, predictably plotted stories, but brilliant writing will rise to the top, and some people will tire of the snacks and want a satisfying meal."

"Clearly, there is a widespread perception of danger to the creative arts (not just writing)," Dowd said. "The current writers' strike in Hollywood is in part responding to the danger of AI replacing writers' jobs. Similar concerns are out there about replacing visual artists, musicians, and even actors. If AI can do these jobs faster and for less money than human artists, it will certainly impact the livelihoods of creative artists." 

I still do believe we are at a crossroads in terms of what AI means for the future of creative writing. I know also that each younger generation has battles to face.

When asked the same set of questions, Sonya Huber — an essayist, memoir writer and journalist who is associate professor of creative writing at Fairfield University and director of the low residency MFA program — said she was "so torn" about AI. 

"I'm already working ChatGPT into my classes because I know we have to engage with it and be open about its strengths and limitations," she said. "But as an author and researcher I'm deeply uneasy that our hold on what is 'fact' will become even more tenuous as we get used to computer applications that can fabricate viewpoints and information through predictive text with no acknowledgment of what is human and what is real."

Dr. Shauna Morgan, a poet as well as associate professor of English at the University of Kentucky — a faculty member in one of the most diverse MFA programs in the country in terms of alumni, faculty and students — was quick to point out that she "initially felt some trepidation when AI topics first became a part of our regular discussions."

"I am, admittedly, still mainly a paper and pencil writer," Morgan said. "I find the conversation intriguing, however — particularly for the questions it raises about language and the evolution of meaning-making." 

Morgan also invoked Toni Morrison in response to the threats that AI could pose to the creative writer. 

"I keep returning to what Toni Morrison said about Black art in her essay 'Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.' The point she shares about her 'struggle to find that elusive but identifiable style' characteristic of Black writing demands that we acknowledge the constraints of AI when it comes to making art," Morgan said. "In 'City Limits, Village Values: Concepts of the Neighborhood in Black Fiction,' an essay published in 1981, [Morrison] offers a prescient observation about the state of (then) 'mainstream' writing in this country in contrast to Black writing. One statement that stays with me is 'writer after writer after writer concedes that the ancestor is the matrix of his yearning.' What is the yearning of AI? Of its programmers? Of the corporations who develop it?" 

My conversations made it clear to me that there is not one singular solution, thought or approach to AI in the English classroom or in the writer's practice. 

When the fall semester began, I was hellbent on trying to correct what I saw as AI encroaching on what is essential to a great classroom experience. I lectured my Intro to Creative Writing class for 45 minutes straight on how I felt about AI technology as it relates to the writer and its place in my creative classroom. I told them they were handwriting all drafts in a writing journal that would be graded each week. I need to know that they were writing original work. However, that night at home in my study, upon reviewing what I shared in class, I did not feel good about it. I thought about my conversations with other writers and academics. I told my class what I wanted and thought, but I never asked them what they wanted or thought. I was talking at them and not with them. I did not give them any kind of grace. I, of all people, should know better. In each class I teach, I constantly challenge the notion of what it means to be an ex-con or convict or inmate, those stereotypical monitors (that I do not believe in) that are more about perception than reality. I judged my students, and that was wrong.

I told them so in the next class, as I apologized for not asking what they thought. We spent that entire period talking about what they do and don't like about AI. When it comes to creative writing, they also feel that is sacred ground.

I still do believe we are at a crossroads in terms of what AI means for the future of creative writing. I know also that each younger generation has battles to face. This generation is now on deck and must address and define this issue going forward for the generations after them. I decided the classroom is right where I need to be, to mold and help shape this generation of potential writers while embracing their truth, their reality, their languages.

I remember watching "The Jetsons" as a kid. The scientific technology imagined in that cartoon was futuristic, way ahead of its time. Now technology has caught up and is headed for an unknown destination. Will it be guided by the creative writer, or will the future reveal the death of the writer?

Only time will tell. The first step is to talk about it.

By Randall Horton

Randall Horton is the author of "{#289-128}: Poems," which received the 2021 American Book Award; "Dead Weight: A Memoir in Essays;" "Hook: A Memoir," which received the Great Lakes College Association 2017 Award for Creative Nonfiction; and three additional poetry collections. The recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Literature, Horton is a Cave Canem Fellow and a member of the Affrilachian Poets, as well as the experimental performance group Heroes Are Gang Leaders, which received the 2018 American Book Award in Oral Literature. He is the co-creator of Radical Reversal, a poetry/music band dedicated to challenging systemic injustice in the American legal system through the installation of recording studios and creative/performance spaces as well as programming in Department of Correction facilities in the United States. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he now resides in New Jersey and is a Professor of English at the University of New Haven. 

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