Adventures in chatGPT #3: Jack Kerouac Edition

Adventures in chatGPT #3: Jack Kerouac Edition

When I first heard about chatGPT, the main thing I was concerned about, like many others, was that students would use it instead of writing their own work.

I tried to take an open approach with it all to try to head off any potential problems. Rather than trying to ban GPT, I talked about it with my class pretty extensively. I adopted a modified version of Kerim’s statement about using chatGPT and other LLMs in the classroom, which I think helped a lot (especially the part about clearly documenting use of such tools). Overall, while there were some issues, things went fairly well.

But there was one thing, one way of using GPT, that I had not expected. Again, I was on the lookout for entire posts or essays that were written with GPT. That didn’t really happen. What I did see, however, was students using GPT in ways that completely overwrote and (essentially) obliterated their voices in their writing. 

I noticed something odd in a few different assignments. They had the signature GPT structure along with a lot of the usual words and phrases that it tends to put into text. The ‘voice’ in these pieces didn’t sound like the students at all. At first I thought I’d run into exactly what I thought I would get: whole texts being generated by chatGPT and passed off as original work.

But when I looked at the GPT chat histories, I saw something else entirely. Students were inputting perfectly good text and then asking chatGPT to ‘clean it up and make it look more professional.’ They were giving GPT several variations of that command. GPT then went to work, spitting out a new version of text that may have been more professional…but it was also lacking in life, details, and individuality.

I wanted to get the point across to my students that I want to hear what they have to say, not what chatGPT has to say. We had another class discussion about the challenges of using GPT for editing while not erasing our individual humanity. I used Jack Kerouac as an example. I read the end of “On the Road” to the class:

So in America, when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars will be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.

I then asked chatGPT (3.5) to ‘optimize’ Kerouac’s text and ‘make it sound more professional and smooth,’ and here’s what it spit back out:

As the sun sets in America, I find myself seated upon the weathered, yet evocative river pier, overlooking the expansive skies that stretch endlessly over New Jersey. I am struck by the vast expanse of untamed terrain, unfurling in an astonishing panorama that spans from coast to coast. The thoroughfares teem with ceaseless activity, as a multitude of individuals harbor dreams within the boundless expanse.

In Iowa, I am aware that in this very moment, children may be shedding tears in a land where sorrow is permitted to be voiced. Tonight, the celestial canopy will be adorned with stars, and one can’t help but consider the notion of a divine presence, akin to the benevolent Pooh Bear. The evening star, perhaps wearied, will gradually relinquish its luminance, casting a more subdued radiance upon the prairie.

This twilight interlude heralds the imminent arrival of nightfall, bestowing its benediction upon the earth. It enshrouds rivers in obscurity, cradles mountain peaks, and gently enfolds the ultimate shoreline. Amidst this enigmatic tapestry, veiled in uncertainty, the destinies of all souls remain veiled, much like the tattered vestiges of time-worn existence.

In these contemplative moments, my thoughts invariably turn to Dean Moriarty. I find myself ruminating not only on the vivacious Dean of yore but also on the enigmatic figure of the father we never encountered. Thus, my musings dwell upon Dean Moriarty, an emblematic figure who traverses the corridors of my consciousness.

Yikes. We talked about GPT did to Kerouac’s text. Admittedly, he’s not the cleanest writer in the technical sense–but that’s part of the point here. All the rough edges, quirks, and hard-to-explain phrasings make Jack Kerouac who he was as a writer (despite his detractors). GPT took that iconic and eccentric last paragraph of On the Road and turned it into a neat, orderly text with four different paragraphs and proper punctuation. It AI-ed the life and poetry right out of it. Now, the output is fine, I guess, but it’s certainly not Jack Kerouac (we can debate about what GPT did to the actual meaning and imagery of the passage another time).

My students got it. I encouraged them to write in their voices, rough edges and all. We also talked about how it actually takes some extra work with chatGPT (again I’m using 3.5 here) to keep it from completely hammering texts. It can get very Hal 9000 on you with these kinds of things, repeatedly butchering texts at times. If you give GPT a broad prompt to ‘clean up’ text, it will just go to town. It needs very specific prompts so that it just makes light editorial changes and doesn’t turn your don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?’s into little more than, well, typing. Take that, Truman Capote. And you too, Hal.

***

Check out Part 1 of this little series here, and Part 2 here.

2 Replies to “Adventures in chatGPT #3: Jack Kerouac Edition”

  1. Student support in most unis has humans who scaffold essay structures and teach standardised writing formats and strategies. There’s long been a kind of identikit essay structure around, and students with SpLD can find this kinds of templates help level the field a bit for them. I’m thinking about how this tech can be used to ‘write along with’ or offer that kind of support. Which then raises the question of whether other important stuff is at risk- like, say, people’s jobs in student support, or the sometimes intangible benefit of sitting with an actual human who shows you a simple essay structure. And maybe notices you sniffling, or that you didn’t comb your hair and realises you are struggling in ways that go beyond the challenge of how to structure an essay.

  2. Thanks for your comment Caroline. I agree it will be a good idea to think about how this tech can be used to ‘write along with’ as you say (rather than just writing for). I think you bring up a critical point though about all those things that will likely get lost when/if these tools are used to replace the people who do that work.

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