Hugo Amador/The Cornell Daily Sun

August 28, 2023

WEIRENS | Our Writing Is At War

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In the 1950s, in his essay “The Two Cultures,” C.P. Snow anticipated a concerning phenomenon: The humanistic and scientific communities were not only losing contact with one another, they were at war. “Between the [humanist and the scientist] there lies a mutual incomprehensible —sometimes hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted image of each other.”  

I chose to study government, above all things, because I love to write. And to write, I believe, is the ultimate way to digest current and historical events with debatable and far-reaching impact. In May, Professor Marguilies, Professor of Government, alluded to his rejection of language processing systems, such as GPT3, since they were “responsive, but uninspiring.” He then killed the college essay. As I sat in his Crime and Punishment course, traditionally an essay-based course, he announced it was moving to a preliminary exam-based format. All the initial fear mongering about Chat-GPT, all the dramatic proclamations of it stealing our jobs, liquidating our livelihoods, it all felt so far away. No longer. Like the majority of students, I was very surprised and disappointed to hear Dr. Margulies’ news. Not just because I have to take more exams, but also because Margulies’ decision may very well be a bellwether for the future of humanities education.

A political science education teaches us to construct and defend educated arguments supported by facts and evidence. How do you get better at this? It’s not by memorizing numbers and statistics, not by doing flashcards or looking at Powerpoint slides. It’s by writing. A lot of writing, combined with professor feedback over the course of your education. Of course, some government classes have been known to include tests and finals, but I haven’t been in a government class that doesn’t assign at least one essay. Through writing these papers, we gain a deeper knowledge of the course content, beyond that of simply reading and memorizing, while becoming a better writer. 

Although Dr. Margulies’ decision is one that I don’t agree with, I can still understand his reasoning. He announced the news to our class with an explanation of how important he believes writing is to our college education. Then, Dr. Margulies explained that he tested Chat-GPT’s capabilities on one of his commonly used essay prompts, and it generated an A-/B+ level response in 90 seconds. He pointed out, rightfully, that this isn’t fair to students who actually take the time to research and craft their own paper, especially since Chat-GPT detection software is not particularly accurate or reliable. I respect Dr. Margulies’ perspective, which makes a lot of sense from a fairness and grading standpoint. For better or for worse, this is our world now. But just because some people can cheat doesn’t mean we should give up on our entire writing education. 

A humanities-based test will usually never be anything more than just a test, a cold recitation, an exercise in memorization. On the other hand, writing allows you to express your learnings in an art form. You can hold onto your papers for years and truly enjoy reading them for yourself or others years later. I can’t say the same for my math quizzes or frantic fact scribbles on old history exams. Prelims are nothing more than an exercise testing the human ability to compute, but we should be doing the exact opposite. Soon enough, we’ll be launched into the real world equipped with Chat-GPT, and our test-taking skills will be useless. This means being a skillful writer is more critical than ever, because that’s the only differentiating factor we’ll have against a backdrop of consistent, reliable Artificial Intelligence. This is why our generation, especially, needs to be trained to elevate writing and new ideas. All Chat-GPT can offer is what is already there. Unless we keep raising writing standards and expanding creativity we will always be capped at the capabilities of a robot. Forever. 

Because, yes, Chat-GPT will steal our jobs. But not in the way most humanity scholars believe to be true. It will steal our busy work jobs that were bound to become obsolete, and will free our minds and bodies for more creative tasks. These are what we should be trained in, not what we should be abandoning. The mundane and memorizing that my generation and preceding ones spent their childhood education devoted to, that utility is what is dead in our modern workplace. The one thing that survives in original value are the ideas and prose yet to be written, but if we don’t have a proper writing education, that leaves us nowhere. Are all humanities majors doomed to be scavenging robots forever, stuck hitting our head on the same ceiling of knowledge, now stored precisely at everyone’s fingertips? To learn to be novel, and to argue novelly, that comes from within. You get that by learning how to write. A computer can’t do that for you, but neither can an exam. Scientific innovation has streamlined collecting and producing data; writing essays is easier than ever. We should revel in AI’s possibilities of expanding our writing rather than fear it. We can’t give up on our writing education just because of an obliviousness rooted in fear, or simply, misunderstanding. 

Dr. Marguiles expressed the critical: In a growing, developing tech-centered world, historical and ethical systems still matter. Prose and style still matter. Language and argumentation still matter. Eloquence matters. As an alternative to Dr. Marguiles’ new prelim policy, I suggest a compromise between a test and an essay. I can understand the academic integrity nightmare traditional essays now bring with Chat-GPT. To combat these concerns, while also preserving the original shell of essay writing as much as possible, I propose proctored in-person essays. They can supervise us as we write and make sure we don’t use Chat-GPT, but allow us to tap into our usual resources, notes and slides as if it were a regular essay. This way, we can still channel our full efforts into a proper essay without the pressure of memorizing, while also avoiding the pitfalls of Chat-GPT cheating. 

So my plea to the humanists everywhere —  do not take away the writing aspect of our education when we need it more than ever. We should always work to advance our writing, especially when we’re in college. If we regress to this traditional exam format, we admit defeat and become what Marguiles swore to destroy: unoriginal, unfeeling writers with basic arguments and an overemphasis on recitation and memorization. Just because machines can be human doesn’t mean we should be less human. It means we need to be more human than ever. Otherwise, what’s the difference? 

Aurora Weirens is a third year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. Her fortnightly column The Northern Light illuminates student life and culture. She can be reached at [email protected]

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