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ChatGPT’s Impact on University Writing Centers

By Lindsey Schmidt

At this point we have all heard of ChatGPT, the AI chatbot that generates pieces of writing based on users’ prompts. The latest model, GPT-4, has been trained using a database composed of 570 GB of data obtained from various sources on the internet, including books and Wikipedia. The development of ChatGPT has raised questions, has sparked controversies, and has sent universities scrambling to come up with policy statements regarding the use of the program in academic settings. Some universities have banned the use of ChatGPT completely, while others have revamped their writing programs to include assignments more catered to students’ experiences and interests – something that ChatGPT cannot simply pull from patterns in the training data. As a writing consultant at my university’s writing center, a lot of the chatter I’ve been hearing about ChatGPT centers around how consultants can best work with students who come into the center with ChatGPT-generated projects.  

Is ChatGPT just an updated Wikipedia?

On February 22, 2023, Grand Valley State University held a ChatGPT panel as part of its Quest Series, a series designed to address issues within the campus community. During the discussion, Patrick Johnson, the director of the writing center, compared the current ChatGPT uproar to the academic community’s response to Wikipedia. He said that though professors were concerned about the website ruining the research process, the innovation eventually led to more well-developed assignments and clearer expectations for students. Similarly, though ChatGPT seems like just another way students can fasttrack their assignments, the new technology actually has potential to help students with their writing projects in a more constructive way. ChatGPT can be used to help students generate ideas for assignments, help them integrate sources into their paper, and help give them feedback or revision ideas. In this way, ChatGPT is not all bad – it may even have practical applications when considering writing assignments and writing centers.   

In some ways, Wikipedia can serve as a model for framing our approach to ChatGPT in educational settings. For example, most writers have developed a level of skepticism toward Wikipedia. Rather than directly citing it as a source, writers tend to use the website only for idea generation or to find primary sources (if they use it at all). Most universities have policy statements or recommended do’s and don’ts when it comes to using Wikipedia. These policy statements can be used as a guideline for how writing consultants approach the ethical use of AI programs such as ChatGPT. Though ChatGPT can have some practical applications, use of the program should be limited to idea generation and minor revisions. The majority of a student’s paper should be their own work, and consultants need to continue to encourage that idea during their consultations.   

How are writing centers responding to ChatGPT?

Grand Valley State University’s writing center has recently issued a policy statement regarding ChatGPT in which it acknowledges that many students may turn to the AI program for writing assistance and promises that consultants will work with students to improve the quality of their paper or project, no matter its origin. Additionally, the policy statement includes an acceptance of ChatGPT’s more useful applications and declares that writing consultants can work collaboratively with students and ChatGPT in order to address students’ questions. 

Whatever one thinks about ChatGPT, there is no denying that consultants need to prepare for an increasing number of AI-generated pieces showing up in consultations. I had discussions with some of my colleagues about how we can do this. Here are some of the strategies we developed for consultants: 

  1. Familiarize yourself with ChatGPT and its applications by giving the program various prompts and questions.
  2. Get used to recognizing when a paper is lacking a student’s voice or personal experience. 
  3. Practice using ChatGPT for the purpose of idea generation. 
  4. Encourage students to not rely too heavily on ChatGPT and focus on putting a student’s unique spin on any ideas generated by the program. 
  5. Develop a basic understanding of what ChatGPT is and is not. Even just remembering that ChatGPT produces text based on patterns that it identifies in the training data helps to keep in mind its limits, especially when it comes to attributing information and citing sources.

Exposure to the program can help writing consultants recognize when a student is using ChatGPT or when it may be a suitable solution to a unique problem, such as helping a student narrow down a general topic idea. In this way, ChatGPT can become a tool that consultants use to help students revise their papers or generate ideas. The development of ChatGPT may also lead to more experience-based assignments, with professors asking for more narrative-style pieces or more personal anecdotes in research-style papers. As ChatGPT cannot pull information from a student’s memory, consultants can help students add their own voice, experience, and opinions to otherwise impersonal, AI-generated work. Perhaps writing centers can include ChatGPT or other AI writing tools in their orientation or professional development sessions to help consultants familiarize themselves with the new technology and be able to recognize and use it.

How can consultants learn to adapt without relying too heavily on the program? 

Though ChatGPT has some practical applications and can be utilized in a productive way in writing centers, consultants should be wary of relying too heavily on the program. As consultants, we must avoid a students’ paper reaching a fate akin to that of the ship of Theseus – that is, though ChatGPT can be used for brainstorming or revising, heavy use of the AI and too many ChatGPT-generated changes might alter a student’s paper to the point that it is no longer the student’s work. Consultants must learn to find a balance between using the AI system to assist the invention process and encouraging students to generate original ideas. 

ChatGPT is a very new technology and definitely has its flaws. However, writing centers, rather than rejecting the program completely, must accept that this change is inevitable and learn to adapt. Though I have yet to encounter ChatGPT-generated pieces in my own consultations, I know they are bound to start trickling in. As a part of the Grand Valley State University’s writing center’s ChatGPT subcommittee, I have been preparing for these sorts of consultations by conversing with my coworkers about how we can best adapt to these changes. Really, the best way writing consultants can prepare is to experiment with the program in order to familiarize themselves with ChatGPT-generated work and to brainstorm constructive ways to utilize it in consultations. 

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