Who’s Afraid of ChatGPT? Humanities Skills Beat AI in the Classroom

We have been schooled to believe that students require external motivators—rewards like good grades, consequences like suspension—to incentivize them to be “good” students who study hard, and discourage “bad” behaviors such as cheating. However, research in economics and psychology has shown that extrinsic motives can undermine students’ intrinsic ones. Internal motivators that drive students to do their best, such as joy, curiosity, and emotional connection, can weaken in the presence of external ones. 

After years of studying learning sciences that show the efficacy and long-term gains of active learning methods, and experimenting with them in my own classroom, I’ve come to trust that when we help students connect to their internal motivations, they don’t need external ones forced upon them. This fall, I’ve set out to apply this principle to chatGPT and other AI in my classroom, and I started by transforming the way I introduce students to my college’s plagiarism policy. 

I, like many faculty, scoured the web to find out how educators are handling chatGPT, and AI more generally, in their syllabus policies. I attended professional development workshops ranging from grim to authoritarian in tone. I’ve always prioritized talking to the student the first time it happens, and then it never happens again. 

Ugh. The Plagiarism Talk fills me with dread, and the student who shows up to it looks like they feel even itchier than I do. I cannot tell which is worse, the indigestion I feel leading up to The Talk or the initial onset of rage when I “catch” plagiarism. 

It feels, at first blush, like an insult to one’s intelligence that these students thought they wouldn’t be “caught.” Do students ever think about how it feels to find plagiarism among a stack of papers? A memory resurfaced from several years ago when my competitors were Shmoop or Sparknotes: I was grading on an airplane to a conference when I realized a student had plagiarized. My body broke into a sweat. My cheeks flushed as betrayal replaced anger. “As if I hadn’t told them to come to me first for help!” I tried to muster a smile from behind my scowl when I asked the flight attendant for water. 

At the time, I was doing exactly what my own professors had done, scaring my students away from a real, two-way conversation. I had given them a Lecture about plagiarism to try to prevent it from Day 1. They knew that I knew what was out there and it didn’t matter. Let’s be honest: a 1-minute lecture on the first day of class took almost no effort on my part.

Everything I’d ever thought about plagiarism changed when I met Stephanie Gilman, founder of CUNY Freedom Prep, a college transition program for justice system-impacted students. We met through a CUNY initiative called Transformative Learning in the Humanities (TLH), a 3-year grant supported by the Mellon Foundation. I was TLH’s Associate Director and she was a Faculty Fellow. Somewhere along the way, she shared a writing prompt about lies with me that I thought could be adapted as a lead-in to the kind of two-way conversation I wanted to have with my students about plagiarism. 

We need to stop using scare tactics in plagiarism policies and first-day-of-class lectures. The only thing fear inspires is cortisol production which shuts the brain down. This blocks our ability to establish trust with our students—the kind of emotional connection that would welcome honesty. What follows is what I did instead, as I explained in this thread. These would work on the first day of class, as a homework assignment, or in the days leading up to a deadline for a formal assignment. Below is a longer form summary of what I did with my class.

Writing Prompts That Attach Personal Motives to Academic Honesty

5-min free write: “Describe what lies are, what does it mean to lie—to someone else, yourself, kids, the elderly, an outsider, an insider? What does it feel like to lie, what does it feel like to be lied to? What’s the difference between ‘white’ lies and more severe ones?” 

Okay, so why bring up white lies? They are culture-dependent, a concept we know in an American context that might not resonate elsewhere. So are rules about plagiarism (these laws and practices are not shared in every country) as well as copyright laws (many of those laws are gendered). We take for granted the U.S. context in which we’ve learned this particular lesson of “right” from “wrong” and while the connection between plagiarism and lying (representing someone else’s work as your own) may seem clear as day to the average U.S. professor, it’s not that clear, or even a point of concern, to everyone in the world. These things (yes, even laws) are sociocultural and not the same everywhere. For example, you cannot copyright recipes. Cooking is often gendered and this feminized labor is historically undervalued by a patriarchal society. Is that right? Hell no. Yet you can copyright written text such as a blog post with enough words in it to be considered intellectual property (videos and photos are also subject to copyright laws). This is why you have to scroll to the bottom of the world to get to the actual recipe on any given recipe blog. Anyway, this was the part of the conversation with students when I could tell they were actually interested in diving deeper into a conversation about plagiarism.

Here’s the second prompt: “Put this into cultural context. Where does your sense of right and wrong come from? Is it different from the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ you perceive in American culture? How so?” 

This is crucial. Most of my students are immigrants or descendants of immigrants like myself. In this prompt, they really begin to connect the conversation to their lives, to their self-perception.

Third prompt: “How do you know that someone is reliable? How do you determine that? Why does it matter to you? What happens when you believe someone is reliable and it turns out they’re not?” 

This prompt helps to start building connections to credibility and academic integrity. Some students share stories of betrayal. Most students agree that it takes time to develop trust and that the length of one semester is hardly enough to tell if someone is reliable or not. That makes it difficult for them to establish their credibility. This realization can show them how quickly one infraction–one instance of plagiarism, accidental or not–can feel like lighting a match in barn full of hay, especially with a professor they hardly know.

Fourth prompt: “Do you want to be considered reliable? Credible? By whom? Why or why not? What happens when someone thinks you are reliable but you betray their trust?” 

When students are done writing, we share stories, unpack ideas and I make connections to plagiarism policies like those mentioned above. And we don’t just talk about what plagiarism is or the policies in our class, but also how plagiarism is being handled by other professors in other classes, making distinctions and sharing resources for navigating the legalistic language. 

I did this with students in my Multiethnic American Literature class because when we just rattle off rules and conditions, we don’t really explain why or how plagiarism policies came to be. Without a deeper understanding, we neglect to connect to internal motivators for maintaining academic integrity. 

So when you talk to your students about chatGPT—or whatever the next thing will be when you read this—try something personal like this (and I share too! I tell them what it’s like to feel betrayed when I discover plagiarism: awful, insulting, confusing about why they didn’t ask for help, and so on). It can spark a desire to be credible, inspire trust, sharing, and honesty instead of cultivating fear (which can lead to silence, omissions, hiding, and cutting corners). It felt like a relief just to be able to tell the truth about how awful it feels, and I think something changed when they saw my humanity—something shifted, opening a new sense of trust between us that I haven’t felt before, or at least not so early in the semester. I asked that they tell me when they seek help online so I can guide them to use those tools wisely and with their critical thinking skills, and so far (we just passed the midway point in the semester), it seems to be working. 

One unintended benefit to having done this exercise, which took up a substantial amount of class time, was that self-respect and honoring one’s truth–not lying to oneself–has become a running theme throughout the class. The prompts above helped to build students’ emotional connection to the reading material and to the writing process, and has sent them on journeys of self-discovery, which I’m witnessing as their self-realizations, assertions, and questions play out in their scholarly essays.

Further Resources:

AI and How to Prepare Students for Careers that Don’t Exist

AI Assignment Flip – 10 Examples by Jason Johnston

Cut Students Some Slack Already by Michael Bérubé

Is using ChatGPT for school cheating or a new form of learning?

Should You Add an AI Policy to Your Syllabus? By Kevin Gannon

Featured photo: blue books for this writing exercise that I handed out to students with markers so they could doodle on the covers while we talked as a class–the point being to take control of a stress-inducing medium for writing, normally associated with exams.

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