Are the Artificials Expressive? 🐂

Stepping into AI discussions since November 2022 has felt to me like stepping into a mixed gravity bounce house, enthusiasts bounding miles-high right next to cautionaries clinging clutch-knuckled to whatever handles avail themselves of the seeming-eternal humanistic basics.

Me, I’m just doing what I can to check the conversations, keep walk-jog sideline pace, or possibly bounce high enough for an occasional dunk-thought, sort of like those tenth grade lunch breaks when the gymnastics spring boards were theatrically repurposed so that everyone who wanted one could have an attempt at reaching the rim. Just a touch! I hope that’s not too much mixing, from bounce house to springboard-boosted basketball, considering I am over here trying to make a point about artificial intelligence, large language model “writing,” and the scoops of words masquerading as discourse from ChatGPT.

I was listening to a podcast—Ezra Klein, I think—while driving to Virginia from Michigan on August 2, and although the podcast wasn’t about AI, per se, the discussion of First Amendment law and free speech got me puzzling through a question about whether AI-generated prose is legally expressive. I am not the first; I am also not a lawyer. But. To illustrate, consider this: a local politician is running for a seat on the Board of Supervisors. Not being much of a speech writer, they tap GPT4 on its non-shoulder, prompting it to return for them an applause raising statement about democratic values. The AI returns a lukewarm soup of a statement, and it just so happens to include in it a damaging and slanderous falsehood about another local official. Litigious gloves are off. Legal teams are enlisted. And the candidate mea culpas with the grandest of agentic shifts: “GPT4 made me say it!”

It reads to me as one of the most ground floor conditions, a lower order stases: Is AI expressive? Is ChatGPT responsible, legally or otherwise, for its so-called writing?

If no, then follows a corresponding set of questions about what writing qua “content generation” actually boils down to. Humans are, arguably and correspondingly, small(er) language models (SLMs). Certainly this doesn’t mean that an SLM can’t every so often augment their repertoire of inventional, compositional, and interpretive range with a sidekick LLM, a backdrop behemoth spitting possibly everything ever. But my hunch is that the SLM should be cautious about surrendering its language to this other phenomenon overmuch, or all-out ventriloquizing the LLM as though its expressions will be satisfactory, sufficient, or both, just because it is big.

Writing, as a verb, doesn’t shield itself especially well from contending, sometimes mismatched, activities. In fact, three decades of writing studies scholarly activity has worked mightily to expand writing, sparing writing its alphabetic-linear reduction, and pluralizing it loftily with overtures of multimodality. Much of this has been good and necessary and warranted, but there has been a trade-off. The trade-off is the you can fit a whole lot of yes-that-too under the baggiest of umbrellas, and then along came the LLMs. I wouldn’t argue that anyone should revert to exclusive or narrow-banded definitions of writing, tempting as it might be (e.g., only a pencil-holding activity, or a thing that happens when a human hand makes a keystroke). But I would say that the lines have blurred between “content generation” and “writing” in ways that are not always helpful for demarcating reasonably distinctive activities and in ways that risk promoting shortcut mindsets when writing is presumed to be ready-made, extractive, and infinitely/generically scoopable from an allegedly ever-improving LLM.

Collin recently referred me to Alan Jacobs’ recent entry, “on technologies and trust,” which aptly sketches the position that we wouldn’t ever think of enticing prospective students to cooking school only to tell them that everything they learn will be derived from HelloFresh boxes. A similar logic extends to graphic designers from templated fallbacks. While the masticated options might be appealing to the uninitiated, they are not quite the same as learning by practicing when that practice entails selection, decision, trial and error, and so on.

I am not convinced that LLMs are expressive, and I want to work on making evaluative sense of AI more forwardly in these terms.

A final illustration: In April an HVAC technician visited the house for routine maintenance on the heat pump leading into the air conditioning season. Before leaving, he started to tell me about how he used to manage a big game preserve in Tennessee, though it closed, and so he changed careers. He then went on to tell me about his daughter who was taking an interest in cattle AI because she had a friend who was working with ranchers in Texas; the friend was finding cattle AI quite lucrative, he explained.

It took me a while to figure out that large-scale livestock procreation, too, has an artificial alternative; that’s “cattle AI,” for us non-ranchers. I think about this often as a checkpoint in conversations about AI and content generation. Might be, cattle AI is for cows what ChatGPT is for writing–artificial, expedient, not to be mistaken for the other embodied, developmentally-dependent, organic-contextual (more than mechanistic) act.

Fourth Mug ☕️

Four mugs for coffee, now three, where has the missing one gone? No big, no mood, we do not even need it today. Everyday mysterious disappearance, though this one feels temporary, more a misplacement than a vanishing. La, la, la, love. Trust. Senses knew it well enough to conjure its absence. Memorable qualities of the mug: same shape and size as the others, only brown-rimmed, not grue-bleen moss, orthodontial ivory, or #b84040 baked orangery-crimson. I only drink from the blue-green one; this morning I have what I need, hot temporary. 
[Goodman, 1979; Puddle of Mud, 2002; Julavits, 2015]

Rinse in River Lethe

A year’s end knocks. Oh, you’re early! Nevermind. Lost track of time. January soon. Knocks again. Annual report is due. What happened. Why? Pause, take stock, reflect. Rewind the tape but play it back at 1.5x normal rate, skip ahead, skip to the end, yawn because hyper recall is fatiguing and sometimes also boring. River Lethe’s feeding forks are vacant oblivion, forgetting, usually with negative connotations. Remember though, forgetting, too, is a clearing, a gift, and an inevitability. Maybe there can be more lethegraphy, forget-writing, gone-noting, in the new year. 

Baked Into Pretzel Shapes 🥨

Administrative work, in my experience, insinuates a contortional gravity into a career. This hypothesis from talking around, asking, noticing local noticings, observational. It’s not that admin wrecks you or explodes you to pieces, but its consequences can be harshly palpable. Sudden stress. Drone of email habits. Repeat questions. Repeat questions. The company you keep becomes less intellectually basket-o’-rangey-musical-instruments on ideas and possibilities; bureaucratic constraints, budgetary entrenchments, efficiencies talk–all of these shunt the counter-myth that administration can be intellectual work, guided by research and shaped by disciplinary experience (if not expertise). You check your pulse sometimes. Is this burnout I am feeling? Is this fatigue after ten consecutive years administering writing programs, first at EMU and then at VT, working under six department chairs, four deans, countless other interims and assistant-associate office holders, nearly all of them so new as to be striving on personal aspirations or so long in the rootrole as to be calcified and dreamless and forgetful. Graceless turnover; sandcastles not kicked but accidentally and clumsily stepped upon. Strikingest among the burnout symptoms in late May after year ten is the high saturation in what is motivating and what is not. Sharp contrasts, the outline of a work-life once forged around reading and writing, teaching and research. Sharp contrasts, yet another meeting with variations on title-holders late to a long-ago-begun conversation, intricate details about enrollment projections, about how labor advocacy is student advocacy, about a program’s becoming requiring (for it to go even middlingly well) horizons of development, mutualism, goodwill, and a reasonable forecast for resources. Reflection on a lull-ish early summer holiday weekend says look back and what have you become, what are you becoming–big you, polyvalent and yet-unfinished and imperfect–and then to ask is another year worth it. It had better be; it won’t be.

A Break

A break. For driving exactly 500 miles. For resuming a paused yoga practice. For making and sharing tacos on the smallest of corn shells. For studying the curls rising from French pressed coffee, French press being the only available in this Michigan spring breaking place. 42°16′4″ N 83°35′39″ W. 61F and a wind advisory because the troposphere is delivering late morning a wall of stiff winter air. A break for punch-listing several work to-dos. For review tasks needing caught up. For reading. For writing.

Try This

Figure 1. Try This: Research Methods for Writers book cover.

Quick entry—it’s late and kale sweet potato soup is bubbling. And I’m still in the late stages of moving, turning in keys and parking passes at the old place this afternoon, scooping expired field mice from the attic of the new place, fetching groceries, hooking up laundry machines, chopping onions, and so on. But a project several years in the works dropped yesterday at https://wac.colostate.edu/books/practice/try/: Try This: Research Methods for Writers, a textbook we hope sees uptake in rhetoric and writing classes. I could say A LOT about this book’s development. Once it was in the hands of Mike Palmquist and the editorial team at WAC Clearinghouse, its shape and timing were never clearer or crisper. I didn’t realize it, but I read today that this book is the 150th free, open access publication of the nearly 25 years WAC Clearinghouse has been operating. So it’s an honor and a wonder and a credit to so many that this book is circulating now, as it is. [N.b., not a ninety, but hope to get back to a few more of those soon, like tomorrowsoon, or the nextdaysoon.]

Step Back & Difficult Puzzle

Step back, consider how it’s going. Recline in an overpriced chair. Pause to sit on a bench outside if the weather allows. Walk. The practices of writing research and doing research thread ends into a knot, and the knot’s beginning-point and ending-point conceal themselves, each indistinguishable from the other. What researcher takes the time and care to label writing as writing and doing (otherwise, anything) as doing? Unwinding later will make for a difficult puzzle. Or else with a shrug and carry on attitude it won’t be necessary.

Ticker

This was the first summer to have gone this way: plague, medium incline boulder roll, grandfoolish grand-societal re-opening, redoubled plague, steeper incline boulder roll. Who even has the time or energy to imagine Sisyphus as anything at all?

Hey Siri, calendar check please. Since late May–the 26th. I picked a date just to size things up, snapshot tally, to figure summertime with whatever it’s been now that I’m in a week dialed intentionally to pausing–a rest before the tidals of August wash our way.

Since late May–the 26th.

  • 1,415 vt.edu emails received
  • 911 vt.edu emails sent
    • That’s a 35.6% reduction, or interruption rate. I wish it was more like 50%.
  • 3 tenure and/or promotion cases to review. One done; two to go.
  • 2 article manuscripts reviewed
  • 1 promotion narrative and dossier sent in (my own)
  • 67 syllabi reviewed for equivalency requests
  • 106 hours in the ENGL1105 Canvas blueprint–I almost wrote blurprint. Blurprint, indeed.
  • 36 hours in the ENGL1106 Canvas blueprint
  • With much help, the 2020 Corridors program built
  • 2 lake swims; hopeful about adding to that number later this week
  • 5088 words into The Big DATO Guide
  • An OWI session for the CWPA virtual discussion conference
  • Collaborating on the CWPA and CCCC Joint Statement in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic
  • Co-faculty-lead for the VT Community of Practice for Writing Intensive Courses, which has included weekly coordinating Zooms and bi-weekly community of practice Zooms
  • Feedback (accepted with revisions) and next steps on the Radiant Figures collection
  • 1 runner-up (or second runner-up) status for the CID faculty principalship
  • 1 service rotation on Computers and Composition Book Award Committee
  • 10 or so additions to the bestiary

That’s the list. I can see in it some things I’d like to change, some things I’d like never to do again, some things that signal follow-through and commitment, and some things that flag for skewing too too far into the faculty-administrative depths of a WPA position that still feels very new to me. Onward is August’s knowing, mumbling hum, and with August, here’s to hoping sky-high hopeshot, there will be space+time for achieving a healthier balance, like amoebas searching for more podia than pseudopodia.

Shifting Online

The global pandemic (COVID-19) has universities deciding to shift classes from in-person to online quicklyquickly ranging from overnight to something like three weeks. Shorter than a couch-to-5k, in other words. As rapid changes like these spread through higher education, people speculate, wondering what it means, how long such changes will last, whether anyone (students and faculty alike) is really prepared, and so on. Everyone’s doing their part to make sense of an unfamiliar phenomenon, and that sense-making takes a variety of shapes–blobby, tentative, many temporary. A medical doctor in this coffee shop just walked in and said to me oh, hey, VT (coffee mug gifted from a former grad student gives it away); “this is gonna be okay; there’s a 97% survival rate.”

Insofar as the generally altruistic goal of social distancing as a measure to reduce human to human contact and thereby to slow rates of transmission, campuses are un-bunching themselves, emptying the dorms as much as possible, interrupting residential and study abroad programs, adjusting. Just yesterday afternoon I was emailed a fair forewarning heads-up–come up with a plan for supporting teachers in the Composition Program if and when this shift happens. I had a call with the program’s associate director, opened a Google Doc, and we generated with help from others on the leadership team a six page document: 1) key principles guiding modified teaching in Spring 2020, 2) reasonable and appropriate curricular adjustments, 3) allowances for the labor involved with adjusting a class initially designed to happen in-person, 4) a caveat about how this is not an effort to forge at overdrive clip through elaborate training in Online Writing Instruction, and 5) a modest collection of resources for re-orienting instructional staff to the university’s LMS. I don’t know if this is the right approach. It is a lean approach–minimalist, humane, focused as narrowly as possible on the problem before us as an eight-week problem, a getting-to-May-6 problem. COVID-19 and social distancing efforts may continuing into summer and fall, but we will think together about appropriate pedagogical responses to those terms later. If and when we get the email to go ahead, we will circulate the Spring 2020 plan with what we believe will suffice for now in its honoring student and instructor well-being; urging flexibility and direct, timely communication; and extending again the forms of support we can make available (responsiveness to questions, openness to working through specific problems, general and continuing availability, administrative reassurance, etc.). No magic beans; no more warrants for drama or anxiety than the pandemic has already touched off.

In talking through the shift to online and upon witnessing quite a bit of buzz about what such a shift presumes about the work of teaching and learning, the planning involved, or the nimbleness of faculty–conceptual, communicative, and technological nimblenesses varied and intersecting as they are–there’s been a (at risk of sounding mildly judgmental, I’ll say it) clumsy differentiation between face-to-face and online teaching. True, at its crudest, some teaching happens with human bodies in the same room at the same time and some other teaching happens with human bodies not in the same room at the same time. We’re at the cusp of a pivot from one model to the other. But that other model–the one where human bodies are not in the same room at the same time–need not measure itself against the intricate and expert apparatuses now long established informing online pedagogies. That is, for now, in this switch-over, we don’t have to lug out the longest-scrolling web pages or the heaviest volumes on online instruction. We don’t have to school everyone new to teaching in online environments about the intricacies and affordances; getting to May 6 is a make-do goal. With this in mind, I’ve been partial to framing this not as a full, frenzied move to online writing instruction (OWI in a hurry), but instead as an ad hoc Spring 2020 modification in which we do our best to solve a short-term problem, respecting novice-ness as genuine (and vulnerable) and exercising scope restraint. Rather than touting this as a full and comprehensive shift online, I’m advocating for something more like online-lite, a minimalist approach cast perhaps a bit more in the shadow of correspondence courses than media-rich and daresay over-produced LMS-sparkled palaces. We can in time make sure everyone knows about the scholarly traditions informing such well-designed, well-made online courses, and, to the extent that pandemic-motivated social distancing becomes more world feature than world bug, we can get better at tying in our programs with that important body of work. But for now, for this moment, a spare approach will suffice:

  • communicate with students (promptly and supportively)
  • express clear and as-stable-as-possible dates and times for drafts and intervals of drafts
  • let existing course materials (curriculum maps and textbooks) do the work they were set in place to do
  • build in constructive interactions, focused as much as possible on uncertainties, opportunities for developing the draft (feedback-oriented stuff whether with peers or instructor led). Also, check out Bill Hart-Davidson’s “Feedback Cultures – A Guide For Teachers Thinking about Moving Student-Centered Learning Online” at https://youtu.be/B4Fe_rS8208
  • err on the side of being positive, constructive, encouraging, and reassuring with students, with colleagues, with administrators working fitfully to unpick snarled problems, but especially with students.

For right now, for this moment, that’s enough.

Upon Not Panicking and After

The inventory I wrote nearly three months ago proved perspective-setting at the time, so I’m trying something similar here, trying to recover that feeling of checking back again on what the ever-living high tide has happened this summer, especially with work. The August Workshop runs next week–that’s the Composition Program’s week-long seminar that in focused ways anticipates the start of classes on August 26.

Summer has been work-intensive, but it hasn’t been all work. I’ve biked and swam, made several trips to Pickerel Lake, camped in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and Ludington, Mich., swam in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, drove to Blacksburg then Nashville, also to Baltimore, also to Lansing for Computers & Writing. I’ve seen a few movies (Last Black Man in San Francisco, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and some TV shows (Euphoria, Barry, Chernobyl, When They See Us, Big Little Lies, probably something I’m forgetting). I flew to Albuquerque for Native Vision, but didn’t fly anywhere else. I got one massage. I will go for a tattoo tomorrow. I cooked my daughter’s birthday dinner on August 1. And I held my granddaughter a few times but not nearly enough, never nearly enough. I made several gallons of fermented vegetables. Ate some of them. Results were mixed. I started drinking coffee again. At neighbors’ request, I stood at a condo association board meeting and read a law about non-profit organizations and about how voter lists must be available at meetings where votes are being recorded, and I was shouted at by a lawyer, also called an asshole. So the summer has had range and depth and balance.

My to-do list remains feral more than tame. I complete things, experience a moment of calm, then get surprised by its biting or clawing or sometimes stinging out of the blue. Here are a few of the things that have been on the list in the last three months. I suppose I should keep track of things differently than I do.

  • Around May 20, I learned that we had sixty-one unstaffed sections of first-year writing for fall. And that set in motion a quickened pace search for thirteen new instructors. The search is still unfinished, so I shouldn’t say a whole lot about it. In terms of workload, it has been a steady and as measured as possible ten weeks. We still, as of today, have six unstaffed sections of first-year writing for fall. Fall semester begins in 20 days.
  • Since May 20, I have received 1154 emails and sent 763 emails. Be the email reduction filter you want to see in the world. But, too, 763 sends is more than I’d prefer for the three months between spring and fall. Notably, not all emails are equal. Some are flits and some are more intricately built. What would it look like to operate in an administrative capacity where email was infrequent, discouraged, altogether abandoned? What, instead, might we use? Are there Slack-only writing programs? Are there in 2019 administrators who decline to use email?
  • I received, read, and returned 42 course equivalency requests since May 20. How does this compare? Who knows. But I’m keeping track of it.
  • I wrote, submitted, and approved edits on an encyclopedia-like entry on heuristics.
  • I presented at Computers & Writing in Lansing and also collected a book award for Network Sense.
  • I attended CWPA in Baltimore, going to a handful of sessions and also participating on the executive board for the first time.
  • I gathered into one place something like 6,000 words toward an article I’d like very much to have sent off yet this fall. But hours dedicated to writing feel both spare and distant at the moment. So this one can sit quietly until early September.
  • I drafted a chapter for a collaborative project (7,000 words plus sixteen figures). Sent that off. And am almost done with revisions on another chapter for that same project (6,000 words plus seven figures). One more chapter is due by the end of the fall semester.
  • I made modest revisions to the chapter I’ve contributed to the Radiant Figures collection. Also mocked up two model chapters and, with co-editors, fine-tuned and submitted that collection’s proposal, which we should be hearing back about before the end of August. With any luck.🍀
  • I worked with VT colleagues on the finishing steps toward compiling a writing programs self-study report that’s gone off to the CWPA evaluator-consultant service and, as well, to the two C-E visitors we’ll have on campus at the end of September. The self-study is maybe 5000 words, but it includes fourteen appendices and thus expanded to something like a 101-page PDF. Next will be scheduling the visit more precisely. Lots of email involved in that.
  • Registered for FemRhet and have continued to shepherd along a process of registering the 10+ graduate students who will be on a roundtable about intersectionality at that conference in November. Submitted a proposal to RSA in Portland next May. I wrote a proposal for a possible lecture at Bland Correctional Facility, though I still don’t quite know if that will be scheduled for fall. And I’m needing very soon to generate a title and blurb for a talk at U Findlay happening in late October. I think it will be a talk drawn from the shadows of the article draft a few bullets back (though the framing is a tad cynical, dissolutionist, endist, accelerationist, fretting with a very particular precariat).
  • Work on Corridors has centimetered along, too, and I’ve just about finished preparation for the talk I’ll share at that event on September 21. It’s something of a follow-up and extension to the argument for visualizing DFWI, grappling with matters of disability, visible, invisible, and otherwise undisclosed.
  • I was elected (unopposed) Treasurer of the Writing Across Virginia Affiliate, what will soon be proposed as a Virginia-specific WPA affiliate chapter.
  • I have a external tenure review due at month’s end; that’s been a letter written by chipping away. Shouldn’t be any problem at all honoring that deadline.
  • If there is more, I can’t think of it.

I’ll begin teaching a section of ENGL5454: Studies in Theory, what’s a temporary placeholder name for the composition theory and practice class. We have nineteen new GTAs who need to take it, and so we’ve split the section into two, doing what all we can (and should) to honor its functioning more like a graduate seminar than an undergraduate class.

And the week-long August Workshop takes motion next week, though at the moment it has wobbled a bit for miscoordination of dates. Whatever of it, it’s nothing a panic will resolve, so we’re trying other problem-solving tactics. It will all happen, and then it will be fall.