Faculty question how to adjust syllabi in the wake of ChatGPT

Two W&L professors drew large crowds to talks addressing the AI technology

An image of a womans face with digital clouds and circuits radiating from it

An example of an AI generated image Schatten generated with the input “Navigating ChatGPT: Understanding the State of Artificial Intelligence.” Photo by Jeffrey Schatten

Jenny Hellwig, News Editor

Professor Jeffrey Schatten, associate professor of business administration, says he has already found ways for the artificial intelligence ChatGPT to surpass his own writing abilities.
“It’s so mind blowing,” Schatten said, as he showed me the complex essay ChatGPT had generated, in which the chatbot tore apart Elon Musk’s capabilities as a leader. “I don’t know any professors who can write like that. I’m sure there’s people out there, but that’s not W&L professor level writing.”
Washington and Lee professors, administration, and staff have already begun engaging in discussions on the best way to respond to the advent of ChatGPT and other AI chatbots, along with the effect they might have on higher learning in general.
ChatGPT, created by the company Open AI, is a language processing chatbot that writes responses based on human inquiries and large amounts of data. These responses can range from straightforward lists to complex analyses.
On Jan. 26, Schatten delivered a presentation about ChatGPT to around 90 faculty, administration and staff members. The event had to be moved from the Harte Center to the Northern Auditorium to accommodate the high amount of interest.
Dr. Paul Hanstedt, director of the Houston H. Harte Center for Teaching and Learning, also delivered a talk about ChatGPT on Jan. 30. He said there were around 60 people in attendance. The subject of the talk was how professors should adapt their syllabuses in order to respond appropriately to ChatGPT.
Hanstedt said that he believes students will begin seeing changes implemented in syllabuses by the beginning of the next academic year. He said these changes could include requiring drafts of a paper and asking students to explain their writing process.
Schatten also provided some ideas for assignments where students can’t rely on ChatGPT, such as doing more in-class simulations or projects.
“I have a class where my students play poker and it has to be in person,” he said. “That is AI-proof. They write about their experience about risk and uncertainty.”
Schatten said he first became interested in AI technology around 18 months ago, back when it was called GPT-3 and could only do low-level tasks. He said that his colleagues had questioned the significance of the technology because it wasn’t very good.
“I kept saying, it’s the rate of change that I can see on a month-to-month basis, how fast the change is on this tool,” Schatten said. “I pay attention to anything that has an exponential growth element to it, because those are the things that have the most profound effects on society.”
Many schools across the country have banned ChatGPT in fear of it being used for cheating. But for the most part, colleges have still allowed students to access the technology.
Paul Youngman, associate provost at Washington and Lee, said that the administration is not currently considering a ban on ChatGPT. He said that he personally would be in favor of embracing the technology and figuring out when it would be appropriate to use and when it’s not.
“The idea that the answer is to require students to write all their essays in class, handwritten, is not really an adequate response to a new technology,” he said. “That’s like saying, when the first books came out, we’re going back to scrolls.”
Schatten says that ChatGPT’s capabilities make him wonder how AI will affect his young children’s learning.
“What does it mean for them to be growing up in an age where when they come to college, they might not have anything meaningful to contribute to writing?” Schatten asked.
While he thinks ChatGPT might replace basic kinds of writing, it won’t eliminate all forms of the practice, Hanstedt said.
“I think the more meaningful, complicated kinds of writing—where we’re not just communicating an idea that’s known already, but we’re trying to say something new and important—I don’t think that’s ever gonna go away,” he said.
Schatten said that he believes the Executive Committee might have to rethink the single sanction in the era of ChatGPT. It might not make sense if the technology becomes ubiquitous, he said.
But as of now, EC President James Torbert has said that there has been no formal conversation about ChatGPT amongst the EC.
“The way that the EC works, there’s no precedent. So each hearing is its own hearing,” Torbert said. “It would have to be brought up to us in order for us to actually have a full blown conversation about it.”