February 2, 2023

KUBINEC | Dear Professors: Stop Banning ChatGPT

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The reviews are in. Professors really hate ChatGPT.

During syllabus week, I asked my friends what their professors were saying about ChatGPT, and the vibes were decidedly bad. “A word to the wise: DO NOT BE TEMPTED by Open AI platforms such as ChatGPT,” reads the syllabus of Archaeology and the Bible. “Do not rely on ChatGPT to complete this assignment,” said an Introduction to Global Health assignment description. 

An administrator for the mechanical engineering department wrote on Ed Discussion that the department’s default stance is that ChatGPT use amounts to cheating. And, in general, I would agree that putting your name at the top of a paper written by a robot isn’t honest.

I object to ChatGPT bans not because I love the technology but because there’s no good way to enforce them. Even the most zealous GPTZero-ers are hedging their bets on underdeveloped watermarking technology that most 9th graders could find a way around. ChatGPT prohibition punishes honest students and rewards unscrupulous ones — the same complaint an upstanding Cornell student during the spring 2020 semester would have made about take-home closed-note exams. 

Prof. Lionel Levine, mathematics, foresaw this quagmire while preparing for his spring classes. Levine was trying to use ChatGPT to solve his class’s problem sets when he had a realization: By the time a student could give ChatGPT enough context to get full credit, she would have done more work than if she had simply solved the problem by hand. By including phrases like “use what we discussed in class,” Levine could cause GPT-heads to revisit course material while trying to solve problem sets with the bot. 

So, Levine is allowing his students to do their homework with ChatGPT as long as they include the prompts they used.

“The best writers will be the people who know how to use [chatbots] the most effectively, so we should teach our students, or at least not actively discourage them from using these tools,” Levine told me.

I found Levine’s sentiment to be true while trying to do my homework with ChatGPT this week (for research purposes, of course). I put an essay prompt into ChatGPT, and it spit out a cogent essay within seconds. I was amazed! 

But as I read the essay over, I noticed the piece was redundant and contained several factual errors. By the time I reworked the paper to my liking, I hadn’t saved myself much time at all. If ChatGPT’s work merits a B+, perhaps we ought to have higher standards. Harder humanities classes could put ChatGPT out of business.

Beyond the program’s practicality, I’m hopeful that the specter of students using ChatGPT to complete assignments can get rid of pointless homework. In my four years on the hill, particularly in larger classes, I’ve written dozens of thoughtless two-page reflections that were returned after a few days with an arbitrary grade and no other feedback. ChatGPT could be the cure for this and a litmus test for homework: if a robot can complete an assignment, it’s not worth assigning.

But wait, ChatGPT minimalists argue, sometimes homework’s purpose is drilling rote concepts into students’ heads that they can build on later. ChatGPT could write a paper about the median voter theorem as well as most students, but this doesn’t change the need for students to demonstrate a grasp on the concept.

To which I say: Nonsense.

Every time I’ve written one of these “because I said so” essays, I’d forgotten its contents by the next month. A robot might as well have written my regurgitated papers for all the good they did me. I’ve had incredible educational moments at Cornell, and none of them involved typing out a summary of something I’d just read. 

When I was a freshman, I remember an upperclassman complaining that Cornell treated her like “a brain on a stick.” ChatGPT can only do homework that a brain on a stick could do. It cannot grieve, or make irrational decisions, or get excited about new ideas, or go to its favorite bar, or do any of the things that make us human. 

If professors give up on banning ChatGPT and instead decide to live with it, chatbots could keep teachers accountable in making sure a Cornell education is, in the words of former University President Hunter Rawlings, “the genuine awakening of a human being.” 

But even if you think summarizing Sartre in a Word document is a pillar of the liberal arts, I still wouldn’t bother banning ChatGPT. If students can cheat without getting caught — and they can — then someone saying “please stop cheating” probably won’t be the thing to stop them. 

Jack Kubinec is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached [email protected]. You Don’t Know Jack runs alternate Thursdays this semester.