The Process of Becoming-ness

In the course I taught this summer, I asked students to write an essay describing the lesson(s) they have learned from past experiences of success or failure in college and […]

In the course I taught this summer, I asked students to write an essay describing the lesson(s) they have learned from past experiences of success or failure in college and to propose a plan for applying those lessons to their future studies in ways that foster ongoing success. Most of my students submitted thoughtful essays that included helpful and detailed plans for achieving success in future semesters. Two of my students, having decided that a robot could say more important, helpful, and accurate things about their personal experiences than they could, submitted essays written largely by ChatGPT.

ChatGPT and its competitors, such as Google Bard and YouChat, are forms of artificial intelligence (AI) that create written texts, works of visual art, or music in response to a prompt that specifies the type of text, visual art, or music to be created. These programs work by scanning the World Wide Web of information for words, images, and sounds that meet the criteria specified in the prompt. Once a sufficient number of words, images, and sounds has been compiled, the artificial intelligence pastes data together in ways that comply with the rules of music theory, artistic composition, or the syntax of the human language in which the prompt was provided. Because these AI programs possess phenomenal processing power, the task of compiling information and creating a text typically requires no more than a few minutes, or even a few seconds, depending upon the complexity of the prompt.

AI-generated texts are generally shiny and nice, but they’re also generally about as interesting as a utility pole. (My apologies to all the utility poles of the world.) Worse yet, AI-generated texts almost always miss the point of a writing assignment because they can’t think about the words they string together on the page and how those words express ideas that may or may not be relevant to the assignment prompt. Worst of all, AI-generated texts are so obviously AI generated that anyone who has even a passing familiarity with student writing can spot an AI-generated text in about 2 seconds.

I was simultaneously amused (Who thinks it’s a good idea to ask a robot to write about personal human experiences?), appalled (Why are my students (a) cheating, and (b) being so blatantly obvious about it?????), and annoyed (I can’t believe I have to deal with this) by my students’ reliance on ChatGPT. However, my amusement, dismay, and annoyance gradually transformed to pity. As I grumbled my way through the business of convincing these students that I could not accept their papers, as submitted, and supporting them through the process of drafting essays using their very own very good brains, I slowly began to realize that my students were not technically to blame for this situation. To be sure, each of them had chosen to feed the assignment prompt into ChatGPT, and each of them had chosen to submit at least a part of the response spit out by ChatGPT. It’s true that these had been ill-advised decisions, but it’s also true that the use of these newly minted AI programs to complete homework assignments has not yet been explicitly prohibited by most educational institutions. Thus, in some sense, the students had not technically cheated. At any rate, they had not violated our institution’s current academic integrity policy. Moreover, I got the impression that my students’ use of AI had been motivated less by malice than by skewed perceptions about the relative importance of product and process.

And why shouldn’t their perceptions be skewed? They’ve grown up in a world full of products that are hopelessly divorced from the processes that created them. Food comes from grocery stores or restaurants, not from the combination of fertile soil and difficult labor performed by a host of nameless people. Cars come from a showroom, not from factories scattered around the globe filled by nameless laborers who transform Mother Earth’s resources into parts that are assembled by yet another group of nameless laborers into a car. Clothes come from or an in-person store, not from the work of nameless laborers who raise and harvest raw materials or transform those materials into fashion. The processes that create our products are rarely acknowledged, let alone observed. In a product-oriented world, why wouldn’t students believe that they should privilege the finished product over the messy process of writing to discover and clarify their own ideas? Why wouldn’t students jump at the chance to submit a pretty text that exhibits good variety in vocabulary and sentence structure and that manages to use punctuation correctly most of the time? Why wouldn’t they be tempted to submit a product that uses language more eloquently (or so they’ve been led to believe) than they do?

The product-oriented mindset that may lie at the heart of my students’ reliance on ChatGPT is everywhere. Indeed, this mindset is so pervasive that I started wondering if (almost certainly if) and how this mindset affects the average person’s spirituality. If life is all about the finished product, how quickly do we need to achieve a state of perceived perfection? How desperately do we need to conceal the fact that we’re still working to overcome our imperfections? How often, if ever, can we step out from behind the elaborate façade of complete-ness that hides our perpetual becoming-ness? Can we forgive ourselves for being a work in progress? Can we love ourselves if the journey through process to product seems to happen less quickly than others’ journeys? What happens if our process never makes it to the stage of completed, 100% perfect product?

The spiritual dangers of privileging product over process are aptly reflected in the bland, hollow boring-ness of AI-generated texts. The product may seem shiny and nice, but it lacks the richness, depth, and humanity of a process undertaken with sincerity, humility, and honesty. It is in the process of becoming-ness where learning, joy, and love surely reside.

-Lori Randall

Click here for a song that offers hope and encouragement through the journey of becoming-ness.

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