Big Tech vs. the Ivory Tower? AI Technology and the Death of the Student Essay

A college professor weighs in on the latest techno-apocalypse.

GUEST COLUMN | by Emily Lynell Edwards


Using AI technology in the undergraduate classroom has the potential to enhance the learning experience for both students and educators. I couldn’t have said it better myself, and I didn’t have to, since I used the latest text-generator, ChatGPT from Open AI, to generate the first line of this piece. Not only has ChatGPT taken social media by storm with amusing text prompts and discussion of new industry applications, but it’s caused doomsday predictions that it’s single-handedly fresh evidence of the death of the student essay and, by extension, traditional methods of writing in higher education writ large. The academic fervor over ChatGPT is part and parcel of a larger societal conversation about the supposed impending dominance of AI technologies that soon will do everything from write code, to create art, to even compose poems.

‘The academic fervor over ChatGPT is part and parcel of a larger societal conversation about the supposed impending dominance of AI technologies that soon will do everything from write code, to create art, to even compose poems.’ 

As an Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities who has used AI text generators in the classroom long before ChatGPT was unveiled, I think the death of the student essay might actually be a good thing.

Hysteria over AI

This hysteria over technological developments of AI and how they’re on track to kill traditional modes of writing aren’t just easily dismissed. After all, the higher education industry is set to be a big market for AI technology and so it’s critical to consider how innovations like ChatGPT might change the classroom—I argue for the better. Academic criticism of AI text generators is merely the latest example of how traditionalist humanities faculty are more invested in critiquing digital technologies and a generation of Gen Z students who seem glued to their phones than open to learning about how to integrate digital tech into the rapidly changing college classroom.

Techno-apocalypticism in the ivory tower rolls around every few years (RIP to the Wikipedia wars of the early 2000s), but as an instructor who studies and uses AI technologies I find this totalizing academic criticism particularly problematic. Instead of bemoaning text generators as the latest plagiarism trend, I had students co-write creative assignments with AI applications, rethinking how traditional writing skills can be honed outside of the outdated context of the five-paragraph research essay. I don’t believe students are conspiring, eagerly awaiting ChatGPT to evolve from its beta-release to plagiarize all their essays, but I do believe students are increasingly questioning the value of certain parts of a traditional humanities education, like research essay writing, and I think they’re right to do so. We’re not in a pre-digital 1980s classroom anymore, and our students, now more diverse and less guaranteed the upward mobility a college degree used to promise, aren’t from the 1980s either.

Into the Classroom

In a labor market where even advanced graduate students in the humanities can’t find jobs in their fields, can we expect undergraduate students who are moving into a range of dynamic new occupations in a digital economy to buy-into outdated learning modalities? I don’t think we can. Many faculty bemoan a shift towards the neoliberalization of higher education, where students become consumers and faculty become service providers. But achieving an appreciation for poetry can’t pay your utility bill. However, as a Digital Humanities scholar I argue we might be able to do both—to continue centering the core principles of a humanities education while still preparing students to be successful in a competitive labor market by integrating AI technologies like ChatGPT into the classroom. Using these technologies not only can help students acquire the skills they need to be successful workers and citizens in a digital economy and society, but these tools can be re-applied to transform the work of faculty; to automate some of the most rote parts of our work—grading, rubric creation, assessment—so we can get back to what education is about, engaging with and educating students in the real life classroom.

What my class of undergraduate students was able to surmise over the course of our semester in Introduction to Digital Humanities that the #AcademicTwitter crowd can’t seem to grasp, is that AI technology isn’t coming to displace all forms of writing (a deep dive into the actual content of a ChatGPT generated prompt demonstrates that pretty quick). But rather as my students and I explored over the course of the semester, we can see that AI technologies are opening up new avenues for creation and expression. Isn’t that what the humanities are all about? As ChatGPT might say, AI is not likely to replace the vital role that faculty members play in the educational process. Perhaps academics should listen.

Emily Lynell Edwards, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities and Educational Technologist at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY. Dr. Edwards currently serves as co-director of the grant Digital Humanities Across the Curriculum (DHAC), funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). She is also a General Editor at Digital Humanities Quarterly (DHQ). Visit her website or write to:


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