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opinion

Blayne Haggart is an associate professor of political science at Brock University. His latest book, with Natasha Tusikov, is The New Knowledge: Information, Data and the Remaking of Global Power.

There are few things in the undergraduate experience as unloved and misunderstood as the student essay. We all know its crimes: It’s boring and repetitive. It can fail to engage the student and leave the professor despairing at having to mark piles of awkwardly written assignments, year after year after year.

When ChatGPT was unleashed on an unsuspecting world last November, the engineers responsible almost certainly believed they were, among other things, helping to liberate students from the drudgery of having to conceptualize, research and write essays.

As we all know by now, generative AI can create output that resembles human-produced texts and avoids easy detection. The problem in disciplines for which the student essay is our evaluation workhorse is obvious.

Students are beginning their first full post-ChatGPT school year, which makes this a great time not just to think about generative AI’s effect on education, but on what is lost when the essay is sidelined.

Professors don’t assign essays out of some misguided attachment to tradition. We assign them because the student essay is a fantastic, best-in-class teaching technology whose effects, it turns out, are very hard to replicate. We often forget that “technology” and “digital” aren’t synonyms: Technology is simply any means of manipulating the world around us for a specific purpose. And just because something is digital doesn’t make it superior to its analog counterparts.

ChatGPT’s calling card is its ability to produce coherent-seeming text outputs. Compared to what a student produces, it looks impressive. And it’s fast: it can generate output in an instant, compared to the hours, days or weeks a student needs to write an essay. But focusing on output misunderstands the technological purpose of the student essay. It’s not an output technology. Its goal isn’t to create new knowledge, and it’s only partly designed to demonstrate a mastery of facts.

Rather, the student essay is a process technology. It’s designed to train students to think scientifically: how to select, process and analyze knowledge. And it’s unrivalled in its effectiveness, reach and efficiency.

Think about the steps that go into preparing and writing an essay. First, you have to identify a topic. This can be a daunting subject for new students because they are new to their discipline. This – not laziness – is why I offer multiple pre-set essay topics in my lower-year classes. It’s a mark of intellectual progress when a student can generate their own.

Good essays also need outlines. Creating an outline gets students to think about how to logically order the information they’ll be uncovering.

Then, typically, students find and read scholarly books and journal articles, from which they must identify relevant information. Summarizing texts isn’t busywork: It’s how students develop analytical skills.

Focusing on the quality of student essays completely misses the point. Of course they’re unoriginal and tedious! Students, by definition, haven’t learned their craft yet. They’re in school to build their skills. Expecting undergraduates to produce brilliant, original texts is as absurd as expecting professional-quality music at an open mic night.

Each step in constructing an essay is a practice in thinking clearly and striving to understand the world. Anyone who’s ever written an essay knows this intuitively. Your concluding paragraph is almost always stronger than your initial introduction. In writing the body of your essay, you develop a greater understanding of your topic than what you started with. Even more impressively, this all happens outside the classroom: it’s self-directed learning that also imparts self-discipline.

The student essay is also a great mass-education, cost-efficient technology. Many people have suggested more in-class supervised writing or one-on-one instruction to counter ChatGPT. But these are time- and resource-intensive, and force a choice between spending more money and hiring many more teachers while (realistically) teaching less, or educating fewer people. The reality is, we have no substitute of equivalent power to the student essay.

That’s the essay as technology: a process designed to train the student in how to analyze and evaluate, to produce understanding. ChatGPT short-circuits this process.

Maybe generative AI – a bubble-driven, legally dubious, environmental disaster of a technology that cannot (and may never be able to) produce reliable knowledge – is unstoppable. Maybe, given that its probabilistically generated word salads can pass for human-generated work, the student essay as a form of evaluation is dead.

Perhaps. But understand that this would be a technological regression. The maligned student essay is a marvel. It produces mediocre output because the essay is the student’s open mic: a chance to be terrible today, far from the lights, so that they can be brilliant tomorrow.

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