Rethinking Writing Instruction in the Age of AI with Randy Laist

Ross Romano: [00:00:00] Welcome in, everybody. You are listening to the Authority Podcast on the BE Podcast Network. Thanks for being here with us for today's episode. My guest is Randy Laist. Randy is chair of the English department at the University of Bridgeport in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

He has taught in middle schools, high schools, and colleges, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, The Chronicle of Higher Education. Randy has edited volumes of essays on inclusive educational design as well as College Movies, Plant Studies, Indiana Jones, and Retro Representations. of the 1980s.

His books include Cinema of Simulation, Hyperreal Hollywood in the Long 1990s, [00:01:00] Technology and Postmodern Subjectivity in Don DeLillo's novels, and the focus of today's discussion, Rethinking Writing Instruction in the Age of AI. Randy, welcome to the show.

Randy Laist: Thank you very much, Ross, for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

Ross Romano: Thanks. So let's start with a Big question. What is writing to you? So we're talking about rethinking writing. How do you define writing or think about what that skill is, what it looks like, what it's all about?

Randy Laist: Well, that's a great question, Ross. Thanks so much for starting off with, like, the big picture. To me, I've been a writing teacher for about 25 years. As you mentioned in your intro, I've done it in elementary schools and high schools and middle schools and in colleges and graduate schools all around you know, the place.

And to me the big thing about writing is that it is not just a means of communication, although that's an important part of it. But it's a way of playing with ideas, of expressing yourself, of like, finding yourself, of [00:02:00] like taking around, taking all the different pieces and elements of your daily experience, and sort of swirling them around and creating something new and vibrant that is uniquely yours, and that is an opportunity that you as a human being have to contribute something original, something of value, and something that comes directly out of your authentic self.

into the world and into human history as a way of like changing our entire like world that we live in. So to me, I think writing is like very important. And it has this incredibly impactful value in the lives of learners and for all of us as members of human civilization.

Ross Romano: I think given that definition, you've certainly contextualized the origin maybe of some of the fears particular to AI and how it relates to writing. Of course, there's People with a variety of reasons why they're [00:03:00] skeptical or even fearful of the AI technologies in general, but with respect to writing, right, that process of the most authentic way of considering and understanding what we think, how we express what we think, right, as people.

And then what does that mean when we're talking about the artificial intelligence and how do those go together? Can you talk about some of The fears maybe that educators seem to have around this discussion when we're really getting into this dialogue and you know, and considering what it means to embrace versus to maybe accept versus to resist AI and how it's going to impact teaching and learning.

Randy Laist: Thank you for the question. As an, as a chair of an English department, I run across issues about AI all the time, most [00:04:00] typically in the context of an accusation of AI plagiarism, where a English teacher or writing teacher accuses a student of AI plagiarism. Sometimes it can be very difficult to prove, unlike traditional forms of plagiarism where it's usually pretty easy to crack down the original text.

AI is much more ambiguous, and so if a student says that they wrote it, it's much harder to have a conversation to demonstrate that they did. So, yeah, it's a big problem, but in a way one of the ways that I approach it in this book, and the way I've been thinking about it, and the way I've been thinking about it even before AI was a thing is that it's a, What Homer Simpson calls a crisis tunity.

It's a crisis, but also an opportunity at the same time. That one of the things that's always limited, the power of writing classrooms to really unlock student potential is the sense that we want to basically train students to be chatbots. That the goal of a writing [00:05:00] class is to allow students to give them the skills to be able to write these very standardized, formulaic forms of writing that of course, were very useful to be able to write back a few years ago before ChatGPT could do those kinds of assignments for you.

So even before chatbots were a thing there is a sense in which formulaic chatbot style writing was stifling the ability of writing to do those things that I was talking about previously, to unlock the potential of new ideas and innovative forms of thinking that are directly connected to the unique neuro architecture of individual students.

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Randy Laist: To me, I think What I've been telling my instructors recently is if you are having a lot of problems with students, AI plagiarizing your assignments, the problem is not the students, and the problem is not the AI, the problem is the assignments. The things that you're asking students to do are things that can plausibly be done by a [00:06:00] chatbot.

And if that's the case, then I am very sympathetic with students who throw up their hands and ask themselves why they should be expected to do something and spend hours and hours of very precious time and their valuable human minds doing something that a chatbot can not only do in like a few seconds, but it can also do extremely well for being given the parameters of what the expectations are for an assignment like that.

So in this book, Rethinking Writing Instruction in the Age of AI. I approach this question from this design perspective, the design perspective suggested by Universal Design for Learning, which takes us back to the origins of the assignments themselves and to our goals of the assignments. And if the goal is to get students to be human chatbots, then there are certain conventional forms of composition instruction that fit the bill.

But of course, nowadays, they, those assignments are vulnerable to being chatbot plagiarized. But, [00:07:00] if we go back to the drawing board and say, well the goal is not to get these people to be human chatbots, it's to get them to use writing in these, to, as a powerful tool for thinking and self invention that it can be.

And so, in a way, I feel like chatbots And the ability of AI programs to compose them liberates the writing classroom from this stodgy parameter in kind of the same way that the invention of the pocket calculator in the early 80s re conceptualized the way It's a lot of math and originally it was a crisis and math teachers were saying, well, what are we going to do?

What do we have to teach now that students can just do their multiplication problems with the flick of a button with something they have in their pocket. What is our purpose? Well in math they did a really nice job of refocusing the purpose so that instead of trying to drill trying to train students to be human pocket calculators Now math classes tend to approach the question of mathematics from a more like conceptual [00:08:00] higher level kind of, space.

Same thing with writing. Now that the chatbots have liberated us from doing these five paragraph essays about gun control, like good or bad we can use the power of writing to be able to encourage students to explore what is unique about them and what they have to say that a chatbot could never say, which is very interesting to think about because as impressive.

What chatbots are, in their ability to manipulate language, what they're manipulating is just the millions of other things that people have said before. The chatbot's limitation is that it can only know what The the input that it gets from reading millions of online articles written by other human beings.

The human beings are the only ones in the system capable of inputting new information, capable of doing something different and novel with the history of human communication. So my thing about that is like Let's really become more sophisticated as educators in working with [00:09:00] chatbots, not only in like create, like I said, creating assignments that are kind of chatbot resistant because they use certain techniques that I talk about in the book and that we maybe we can talk about later on in this talk but also maybe even using chatbots in productive ways in the writing classroom to provide examples of Chatbot style prose and as a research tool and as a editing tool and for many other ways that are also described in the book.

Ross Romano: Yeah, I think that's a great answer and covers a lot of things and certainly kind of aligns with a lot of what I'm thinking about the plagiarism and the cheating thing, where if your first question is How can this be used to cheat? That's a very deficit focused, low ceiling way of thinking about what learning is, right?

And it's an indication of, okay, perhaps we're not being ambitious or creative enough in our assignments here. If it's either very easy to cheat, [00:10:00] well, I mean, yeah, so this is not the downplay you know the fact that cheating is a negative, but if it's just super easy to cheat or it's obvious that, well, why wouldn't I just do this?

Right? Then then it's clear that students are not learning useful skills for their future because why once they're out of school, it's no longer cheating. It's just using technology, right? But also that, right, that the technologies is. present new ways to be creative that aren't the first obvious thing.

You mentioned the calculator, right? In order to be able to use a calculator to come up with the correct solution to a math problem, you still need to know the right questions to ask. I still need to know what the functions are and what the data is that I'm putting in there. Same thing with writing. In order to come up with.

new ideas, novel ideas, I need to know the right ways I'm prompting these [00:11:00] tools, but it facilitates the speed at which I can get a summary of what people already think about an issue. And then I can consider what do I think, or what do I have to add to it, right? And, but then you have to add to that and build on It because it's only pulling from what already exists.

But how quickly can I get to a point where now I can confidently say, all right, I kind of understand the basics of what this is about, and now I can consider what do I think about it, or what do I want to add? And then prop myself in new ways. And what can we do with that as far as, okay, now, how does that increase? the opportunities for what we can assign, how much we might be able to cover in a semester, right? How much more quickly can we move along here? Like all technologies, I think I thought about it when I was, Working primarily in PR and [00:12:00] doing all the things that are digital now, sending out a press release or anything as simple as that and thinking there was a time like in the 20 years ago, or not now, but in the eighties or even maybe the early nineties, when this thing that's Like the first hour of the day would have been the entire day.

That would have been the job for the day because you would have had to do everything manually, go to the post office, or get on the phones, or do whatever. And now that's just one part of it. That allows us to get a lot more done. It still means we need to be thoughtful about what else is worth doing, right?

And what should that be?

Randy Laist: It makes me think another example in addition to the pocket calculator is the emergence of search engines and Google in like the late 90s and zeros. When that first happened, a lot of educators were up in arms saying that the students would not have to read anymore, wouldn't do any research anymore.

But it turns out that, of course, properly used search engines are [00:13:00] extremely valuable research tool. So it's just a matter of like finding the right instructional approach technology emerges. And sometimes it takes some like cultural catching up to be able to figure out how to productively place that technology into a certain ecological framework where it makes sense and where I can actually do the work that the human work of making our lives better and more interesting.

Ross Romano: Yeah, there's more reason to incentivize curiosity you know, certainly one of the big issues when I was high school, college, starting college, at least was, Wikipedia. Oh that some people, Oh, Wikipedia, you can't use that at all. You shouldn't even look at it. And I mean, it's a great tool.

There's a lot of great information on there, But it's also a great thing to learn enough to say, do I want to know more about this topic? Right. Do it. What the, now I'm curious. Now this is interesting. Now I need to go and learn more and go to more in [00:14:00] depth sources and all of that.

Randy Laist: That's kind of the same thing you were saying about the, about using the chatbots, and I talk about that in book two, about a useful way of using a chatbot to do a writing project, it has the chatbot to do your writing project for you, and then take it to the next step. And the same thing I think happens with Wikipedia, if you use it as a starting point, as sort of like a icebreaker, or a starting point to spark a line of inquiry, then It can really do very interesting things and can really contribute valuably to to like an educational experience.

So again, it's not the technology itself. It's of course, as always with technology, it's sort of the way that it's used and the way that it's approached and the way that people think about it. Not as a way of like replacing human beings or substituting human thought, but as a way of kind of like encouraging and motivating and.

and making human thought like easier and more interesting.

Ross Romano: totally. So, Randy, from your perspective, then when it comes to the use of, the embrace of AI [00:15:00] in, in writing instruction, what are the risks? Are there any risks associated with how we Embrace it or how much we embrace it. What are the risks of not not doing so?

Randy Laist: That's a good question. To me, I feel like the only risk in AI is pretending that it doesn't exist or pretending that it's going to go away or imagining that it's just a fad or you know, something that doesn't actually impact the classroom. And I'm thinking not just of the writing classroom, although that's what my book is about, but also just of any educational environment.

where you're asking students, again, not only just to do writing projects, but to do any kind of, like any kind of thinking the, those chatbots are extremely versatile and kind of infiltrate the entire system, so to me, the only risk is, like, pretending that it's not there and that it's business as usual of course, Once, once you actually start embracing AI and bringing it into the classroom and teaching students like what it can do, which is a lot, but also, I think a very important conversation to have is also what it can't do, like [00:16:00] when it's limitations, which, again, are pretty substantial and they're substantial.

Ways that are kind of obviously part of the fact that it's such a new technology, and the chances are that the technology will get better and the AI chat bot essays will get better and they'll get more sophisticated, more capable. But no matter how. Advanced AI tech or becomes there's a certain extent to which no matter where it goes, the human beings have sort of a advantage because the human beings have bodies, they have experiences, they have inner thoughts, they have relationships with other human beings, they have this amazing thing.

Human brain, which even the most like a child or whatever, it's like a million times more processing power than an AI, any AI device could ever possibly have. What that means is that the If the A. I. s ever develop to the point where they can mimic human consciousness or [00:17:00] actually like do like compelling representations of human consciousness, then those A.

I. programs who take a writing class, then they can sit down aside next to the human students and explore the same questions and mysteries of their consciousness and of their ability to Use language to change the world that the human people can do no matter where you are if you are a entity that uses language then you can learn how to use that language in more creative and productive and thoughtful ways.

And so, in terms of the risks, I think there are like again, the only risk is like just pretending that it's not there. And then the opportunities on the other side of the spectrum are like the entire evolution of the human race like that's like the, sort of on the other side of the coin, like the advantages or the the opportunities.

About how human beings and AIs can work together to not only help human beings reach new kinds of ways of thinking. But also to challenge us [00:18:00] to identify what is human about our thinking and to position ourselves in relation to the AIs in ways that celebrate the wonderful mysteries of human consciousness that, despite all of the all the hoo ha around AI, it's still like an AI essay.

It's like clearly an AI essay you, it has all of the like markers of something that is written by a machine. Whereas of course the human is unpredictable and full of variety and full of these deep experiences that connect new knowledge to a deep past that is connected to identity and ethnicity and race and language and sexuality.

You know, and social relationships, and all of those things that an AI simply doesn't have access to.

Ross Romano: Yeah. And you know, going back to that cheating point to what you were saying I have referred to AI as the biggest cheating [00:19:00] tool in education because schools that ignore it are cheating their students, right? Because there's the students that have access and have you know, some level of privilege, whatever that is, will get access to it.

They'll learn how to use it. They'll become skilled and they'll be able to use that in their future. And the students who, you don't have access to it in school and can't get access to it out of school or can't get access to expertise in how to use it are going to be disadvantaged and they're going to be behind.

And the fact is, like, this is the way the world is going. These technologies are going to exist. We need to learn appropriate use, responsible use what worthwhile use is, right? But to act like they don't exist or to ban them and say, well, you just, simply can't use it is not doing anybody any favors.

And it's just one of those things that we have to re rethink and relearn what it means to.

teach what it means to learn.

Randy Laist: You know, I'd also say one of [00:20:00] the things about, like, the, one of the big disadvantages or the risks of sort of, like trying to criminalize the use of AI and trying to, like, treat it as a academic offense or something like that. Which of course again, it can be and students do like it's important to like hold students accountable once you to make sure that students are using it appropriately, which is all the more reason to talk about it in in open.

But one of the things about To me, as again in my perspective as a chair of an English department, one of the things that's really depressing to me about the way that these conversations sometimes have is they become very litigious and very like I, he said, she said, and I wrote it, you didn't write it, you're cheating and it becomes this very kind of, there's an animosity and a personal Emotionality to those kinds of conversations that really disrupts and derails the entire educational experience and takes what could be a really good educational experience for a student and turns it into this, like, horrific nightmare of like you did this, I didn't do this, and this website [00:21:00] says there's a 90 percent likelihood that you did that, and that website says there is a 20 percent likelihood that this is AI generated text all that garbage, all that, like toxicity.

Can, yeah, like, to me, the biggest appeal of trying to rethink writing instruction so that it is, so that it adapts and incorporates and encompasses the phenomenon of AI is that it gets rid of those horrible painful and awkward conversations and lets people get back to learning and enjoying themselves in the learning process.

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Ross Romano: So all of this discussion about how we're rethinking writing instruction and with AI, how does this fit into the context of UDL? How do those, how does that all go together?

Randy Laist: Yeah, well that's a great question. Universal Design for Learning is something that I've been working with for many years now. It became adopted by an institution that I was a faculty member at Goodwin University, [00:22:00] Connecticut, a few years ago, and it really took root there very effectively. We the faculty and the staff and some of the students.

I've largely almost all been kind of through these cohort training sessions where we learn about UDL and we practice applying UDL principles to our own teaching and stuff like that. So, I've been doing UDL for a while. In fact, we, some of my colleagues and I put together a book called UDL University, all about applying UDL principles in a higher education space.

So it's something I've been thinking a lot about. It's something I've been thinking about in the context of In the context of online education and in the context of kind of like anti racist composition instruction, where rather than trying to marginalize or silence the voices of students who don't speak [00:23:00] standard English, we try to adapt the curriculum to embrace those voices and to make sure that people don't feel marginalized.

Silence to Marginalize. So I've been thinking about all this for a long time, and then in 2023, kind of dramatically, I think maybe like in late winter or early spring of 2023, when all these, chatbot, when ChatGPT launched and everybody started, all the English teachers started freaking out about chatbot panic I felt that UDL had positioned me and had positioned the institutions that I teach at to be able to address this emerging challenge or crisis attunity in a constructive way grounded in student centered practice and in appreciation for the variability of individual learners and for the responsibility of educators to create learning environments that are inclusive and that adapt to changes.

One of the, to me, I think one of the reasons that Biddlewin University has been very successful and resilient through COVID and through all sorts of [00:24:00] upheavals in the higher education space is because of its commitment to UDL, which has made all the instructors very flexible in terms of their mindset and how they approach the teaching that they do.

So, again, and when you know, I started becoming the chair at this other place at the University of Bridgeport sort of a more traditional school, but a lot of the same kind of challenges. I was involved in applying some of the UDL principles that I picked up teaching at this other institution into this new space.

At the same time that the AI thing started and all the instructors started to say to me, like, well, we need to do something about this. We need to figure out some approach but the UDL already had the answers. UDL already knew that the answer to the chatbot problem was that writing instruction was already too standardized, too conventionalized, too committed to sort of the sort of mechanical technical functions of the composition process.

And but whereas [00:25:00] again, when we think about writing as this sort of like transcendent brain based way of, Celebrating the individual perspectives of individual students. That's very parallel with the UDL emphasis on finding the learner's own you know, like resources and trying to capitalize on the uniqueness and variability of individual learners.

To me, I feel like a good English classroom is always doing that. It's always trying to figure out what is unique about this student. What unique strengths does this student have? What powerful stories does this student have to tell? What unique perspectives and wisdom and experience does this student have locked inside of them as a result of their human reality?

And how can we help that student change? make the most of it, to express it, to understand it, to elaborate it, to apply it to different contexts, and to celebrate it, and to feel proud of themselves for being a human being, and for having these wonderful things to say. To me, that's always [00:26:00] been what an English class should be about, rather than about like well, here's like how you write a five paragraph essay, and you know, your commas are in the wrong place, and you know, all the kind stuff that people hate about English classes.

Ross Romano: Right.

Randy Laist: And so, in the age of AI, That approach is like, well, let's acknowledge the humanity of our students. It fits like a glove. It's the perfect solution. UDL provides us the perfect framework to be able to figure out how we can engineer learning environments to make sure that the student is sort of the curriculum, that the students own thoughts and feelings and perspectives.

This is kind of the starting point for any learning experience that they have, which is true very much in the writing classroom, but it's also true across the curriculum in other disciplines as well, where the students, as UDL teaches us, where the students engagement, their emotional, personal engagement with the learning environment is the most important, [00:27:00] most elemental piece of the puzzle.

So again, so UDL makes us think about all that. Also think about the goal. That's something that I've taken away from my UDL training in a writing classroom, although it looks for an outside observer. But if the goal is to produce this five page piece of research writing that it has never actually really been the goal in a process oriented writing classroom.

The goal of a writing classroom is not to get the students to produce some publishable piece of writing that almost. Never happens in a writing class. Point is get the students writing to get the students thinking about writing, to give them a confidence and a sense of empowerment that allows them to continue writing beyond the last day of classroom beyond the last day of the class.

And that's what the value has always been. The distraction of like, the actual product of writing as kind of like sometimes being like a case of the horse driving the buggy or the other, the buggy driving the horse or whatever it is. And again, AI gives us a chance, the [00:28:00] emergence of these AI chatbots gives us a chance to be like, Well, look at these robots are writing these essays and they're doing a damn good job of it.

Let's find something human for these students to do.

Ross Romano: right. Yeah, I think there's a lot of I many, many untapped avenues. And so it's, I think it's a bad sign that we're so deep in the conversation before I'm asking this. And, but it's probably representative of how a lot of these conversations go. How do students respond to it and react to it when when AI is brought into the writing classroom and they're engaged in in, in learning how to use the technology or apply it to what they're learning?

Randy Laist: Students are full of variability and they're all unique snowflakes and they all have different, like, perspectives and responses. But in my impression in my general, like Sense of from having had these conversations with students over the last year or so has been that they really want to take advantage of this tool.

And in a way, of course as is always the case, like the young people are like the early [00:29:00] adopters and they're eager to try to take the, take advantage of the new technology and they're not. Threatened by it, or frightened by it, or weirded out by it. They they think it's, and it's fun, right?

I mean, there's a certain elemental, like joy of like putting a prompt into a chat bot and watching it magically create this like, you know. This skein of text out of and it's I think that's a funny and it's a delight and a joy that actually speaks on a very basic level about the joy of writing itself.

And I think that's an interesting place to start that conversation too, is to say, well I know you have a weird kind of like secret thrill when a chatbot spits out an essay in response to your prompt. That response that you feel. is the the basic joy of like expression. And so let's use that as a break.

So the students, yeah, they like it, they want to hear about it, and they want to I don't think I mean, I don't know, I'm Pollyannish maybe about this, but my impression is students don't want to cheat. They don't want to like they don't want to like cut corners.

They want to learn. They [00:30:00] want to use, they want to, but they also want to use their time productively. And again, I feel the same way when I was a student. That if I'm being asked to do something that is redundant, that is, like not really worth my time, that seems like busy work, that seems like something that is not really contributing meaningfully to my development as a human being, or to, like, the cultural landscape of society in general, then that's you know, obviously, you shouldn't be asked when you're asked to do something that's dehumanizing or that's, that minimizes your potential as a human being, Yeah, there's a basic resistance to that.

And so In some cases, like I say in a lot of cases where students, even in flagrant cases of plagiarism, where they are taking just piping the assignment into a chatbot and handing in the result to their teacher as their own work. I don't know, in some way I feel like if the chatbot can do that, if the chatbot can And if you can produce a reasonable simulacrum of the kind of writing that the teacher's asking you to do, then yeah, that's what technology is for.

So take advantage of that. And then find out [00:31:00] what you can do. So in my classrooms, when we say, all right, we're going to do some kind of research paper, we're going to talk to you about what your interests are, and we're going to do a we're going to write about it. Let's start off with asking the chatbot to, let's start off by asking some research questions.

What are some research questions around this topic? Let's write them down. What kind of, where do those research topics go? What is, let's start with the chatbot, like we said before, actually write the essay itself. What does it come up with? One of the things that you see right away when you do that is that, again, the chatbot knows the formula.

The formula is actually a good formula. It's got a thesis statement, just like we always ask our writing students to do. It has topic sentences at the beginning of the paragraphs. The paragraphs are nicely organized around specific subtopics that are related to each other and that sometimes even go from one to another in a logical sequence.

Not always though. So they, but the chatbot can like once you see a chatbot essay, It is pretty easy to identify, well, those are the markers of this kind of writing. So the chatbot can do it, you can do it. It's easy. And [00:32:00] also, like, well, here's what the chatbot says. The chatbot says a bunch of, like, platitudes and generalizations that it drew from millions of other articles that the AI thing has read over the course of its weird AI life.

And it's just mixed them together and spat them back out. And it's a new kind of order. That's what it did. You know, that's what it does. That's what we asked it to do. That's what it's capable of doing. And that's what it did. So now that Shabbat did that, where can we go from here? What can we say based on you?

What can you say, you random student with your unique background expertise, your unique like place in the world, your unique, like way of seeing whatever it is that is, of course I mean, I think about the brain and How you know, a human some random student who walks in your classroom, they have this thing in their head that is this unique, powerfully, mind changing world changing, universal device that is never existed before in the history of the universe and will never exist again in the history of the universe and is like This is your [00:33:00] time to use that thing in your head to do the amazing, like, unprecedented work that it can do and whatever you have to say about the topic that we're discussing, that's the thing that you have to say that no one else can say and so that's your job to say, and that's the job of writing to help you find that thing.

And so the AI is doing its job. It's telling us, it's giving us these like random generalizations. It's telling us what they say. You know, that's a good way of thinking. I think of like Martin Heidegger, 20th century German philosopher, who believed in the sense, well, the they is this faceless entity that has these kind of mass opinions that are not connected to any one individual phenomenological existence, but just exist in this kind of like soup of like anonymity.

Now that's great. You know, it's good to know what the they is saying because they are the soup that we inhabit. But now like you have this kind of written record of what they say. Now, what do you say? And that's like your human job is to [00:34:00] identify that response.

Ross Romano: Yeah, there's a, there's like a competition versus collaboration element to it, right? Which is, I mean, ultimately at this point, like we're all in some sense competing against what these technologies can do. And as you mentioned, we have the advantage. We have the ability for novel thought and creative thought but there's at least a baseline of what the technologies can do.

We can. Collaborate with them, use them to enhance and augment what you can do. I mean, ultimately, one of the goals of writing is to write something that people want to read, right? Whether it's informational, whether it's fiction, no matter what it is, it's write something that is for some audience, that is filling some need, that is something they want.

And so, like, how do we make them, how do we make people demand to read things written by actual humans. Well, that means we need [00:35:00] to continue to be creative, to have, to maintain that differentiation to, okay, there's certain hallmarks of an originally written human authored piece versus something that was strictly prompted and You know, spit out by a chat bot and all of that.

But there's but it also represents what the opportunity is again to to be able to surface a lot of ideas, to have options and avenues. And there's a, there are a variety of Activities. I mean, this is the majority of the book, actually, right? Touches on activities for using this.

And there's a lot of areas, and I just wanted to get some thoughts from you on what some of these could look like. And you, I pulled out inspiration and brainstorming, right? Research, outlining, drafting, revision, all these different Steps of the writing process. Where are some of the activities that you find perhaps, most interesting or even are there areas where [00:36:00] it's you're even going further than having. We leverage AI technologies for this, but really recommending or more like, please do, like, please do use it for this step, because it's going to help you come up with so much more. It's going to save you a lot of time on something that is there's really no need to spend all that time on it, or I don't know, like, just Well, however you want to address this, but kind of talking through how some of these activities fit into these steps and then how it just kind of, I think helps develop better writers, right?

Randy Laist: Yeah one of the things it makes me think your question makes me think about is another question that you asked about the risks of AI, and it did occur to me that another risk that I didn't talk about, which is a risk of AI, which I think is a really important risk that we all need to think about as a species, which is that the idea that People will see an AI chatbot writing an AI chatbot essay and assume that there's nothing left for human beings to do.

That the chatbots are actually like are smarter than [00:37:00] us. They have like that they, we might as well just seed the project of consciousness over to the chatbots. And now like the human beings sort of withers into a husk of like looking at TikTok videos while the A.

I. s like get smarter and smarter and wind up like, being like, well, what are these human beings even here for? You know, I think there is like, totally that element. And it's I mean, obviously one possible future. To me, I think the best way of leveraging ourselves as a species against this risk.

is to have passionate conversations about what the role of the human being is. And I think, again, like, to me, I don't know, I mean, writing to me is at the center of that of that entire conversation. You know, writing, for crying out loud. That's history. You know, the first Sumerian carved, like a stylus into clay thing and to mark like how many bushels of wheat or something were coming in.

That, that's the beginning of history and what we call history is actually people writing stuff down and then passing it on [00:38:00] to the next generation, people reading what they wrote and then writing their own like inversions or interpretations or analyses or stories based on like that written record.

That written record of texts being produced by human beings and disseminated and reinterpreted and reread and reimagined over Millenia is what has created AI in the first place that, like, that it all rests on the foundation of human civilization being developed in an iterative process through the power of writing and reading and the human mind itself that we have in has also been largely shaped by these rhetorical discursive practices.

So I mean, again, I'm a writing teacher. I'm biased, whatever. But I, to me, I think that when you think about like, what is it that a human being can do that is like so quintessentially human that is like the basis of what sets us apart as a species to me, it has a lot to do with I don't know, not just maybe writing like the actual lyric practice of writing sentences down on a piece of paper, but being able to [00:39:00] process information, have conversations to reinvent ideas.

And to do that kind of like generative work that makes new ideas happen and that allows human beings to go from hand axes to chariots to spacecraft. There's like that, all of that relies on the kind of work that human beings do when they Read and write. So, to me, I feel like the writing classroom is like ground zero in the fight against Skynet and the ai.

Not in the sense that we are going to blow up their laboratories and go back in time and stop them from existing, but in the sense that we're going to all align ourselves with them, we're going to figure out the lines of demarcation. between what they are and what they can contribute to human civilization and who we are and what we can continue to do to make sure our human civilization stays one that supports human consciousness and that promotes human diversity and all the beautiful, wonderful narratives and thoughts and feelings that human beings [00:40:00] have.

So, so all these activities that are like kind of in the classroom These are this book kind of originated as a cookbook, an educational cookbook that a writing teacher, whether you know anything about UDL, or whether you care at all about AI, or whether you, like, have any whatever, wherever you're coming from pedagogically or philosophically, you can pick up this book, turn to one of these activities, it's basically written out like a lesson plan, and do this activity with a bunch of students.

Most of them don't require any, like, advanced preparation. They're just like, open up the book, learn the recipe, and start cooking. And the UDL stuff is in there. It's like, as you know from reading the book, it's got, like boxes of theory and composition theory and UDL theory and the way that things connect to, like more kind of abstract principles.

But the basic thing is, here are things that you can do, especially with a group of students, especially, I have to say, mostly in a on ground environment, but we have, we also acknowledge online [00:41:00] environments and a lot of the activities are adaptable to different kinds of places. But here's the thing that you can do, access the human agency of your students to inspire them to write, let them not just write it, cranking out paragraphs, thinking about who they are as human beings, what they have to say as students.

You know, as students or as researchers and how they position themselves in relation to the classroom community, the society that they live in, and really the scope of human history writ large. All of these activities, and you know, they're fun, they're quirky, some of them involve AI, but not all of them.

There's a, there's one that's like a Wonderball activity, where students pass around like a piece of paper, or the Wonderball, and whoever the student winds up with the Wonderball has to apply something that they're thinking about to something that one of their classmates is thinking about. Things like that, just ways of like, students kind of like, taking ideas, turning them up together, using their their improvisational ability, their ability to empathize with [00:42:00] one another, their ability to hold meaningful conversations, to think deeply about their own lives, and taking all of that human resource, all those human resources.

and leveraging them into new ways of thinking and self expression. And you know, so the idea is that there are all these lesson plans in the book, there's all these different activities that you can do, but basically the activities are simply a starting point for people who teach writing to think about how they can create these kind of educational encounters that privilege you know, human thinking.

And a couple of like basic principles, I think, are really useful. in in helping me design these and helping me teach these kinds of assignments. First of all, of course, the book is all constructed around a process approach to writing. When students are drafting, revising brainstorming, outlining, researching, going through a writing process, The temptation to use AI to write your essay all at once is hopefully much less [00:43:00] pronounced.

And also, of course, the process oriented approaches help students develop their own voice over time, incrementally. Another technique that these activities use is in person writing. Writing where you're actually doing it in class or in front of your colleagues in real time which is a great way to use the power of generating sentences to help you come up with new ideas on the spur of the moment.

They use multi modal assignments where rather than just creating a research paper or a piece of writing, students are working across different media to do podcasts and videos and other infographics and other kinds of vision boards and other kinds of, like, multimedia activities to help them, work with ideas and also use writing in a bidirectional way, help them develop their multimedia projects, but also as the multimedia projects also produce new pieces of writing.

So multimodal work is very important. And I think the most important thing is the, is that these assignments 201, I think, are intensely [00:44:00] personalized. They ask students to do the kind of writing that sometimes English teachers are a little uncomfortable with, which is first person writing, reflective writing, writing that says I and me, writing that takes the students perspectives and uses it as a starting point for other kinds of inquiry and research.

And again, if you ask, if I ask someone to write an essay about cell division, yeah, the AI is going to do it, it's going to do it better, it's going to do it faster. But if I ask a student to write a essay about how they feel about cell division, what's their favorite stage of cell division?

You know, what does cell division mean to them? You know, which is a weird question, but a really good question if you think about it. That question suddenly is maybe an AI could write it, but it's not going to do, it's not going to do the kind of work that the student's going to do of being able to actually apply it to their own experiences and their own personal way of being in the world.

Ross Romano: Yeah.

Randy Laist: Those are, I mean, those are some broad, like sort of strategies that all the activities in the book in one way or another you [00:45:00] know, reflect. The point again, to me, is that A good writing classroom gets people, gets students talking, it gets them thinking, it gets them writing, of course.

And all that starts with the emphasis on their perspective as human beings.

Ross Romano: Yeah. Yeah. So Randy, to wrap up our conversation one of the things I'm really interested in and passionate about is schools improving their proactive communications to parents, families, to their community. They really talk about the great things they're doing, right? The ways they're supporting students, the ways they're enhancing learning and all their programs.

So what's the one paragraph or the bullet points for a school who is really embracing these practices and bringing it into their learning and wants to tell their community about it, right? Rather than wait till they get asked or wait till somebody comes and say, Hey, wait a second. What are you teaching over there?

Why is this all, why is it all [00:46:00] AI? But how do they tell those those parents and families or the other stakeholders in the community? Hey, like. We're doing this and here's why it's a great thing.

Randy Laist: Well, I don't know, I think, I would say two things, which sound like they, they contradict each other, but are actually like work together. The first thing is that I would say to these people in this community, these students are using technology. At the cutting edge level, they are incorporating their learning skills about how to use the technology, the limitations of the technology, the sort of like the borders of what the technology can and can't do, the way that it can supercharge their writing in certain respects.

the way that it can give them a more important professional skill that's going to become more and more valuable. So there's that thing, there's that sort of the technocrat response, which is like, we are teaching our kids to learn a useful and marketable technology, which is true. But then there's also, I'd say the humanist response, which is that we are in the process of teaching [00:47:00] students to work with these you know, artificial intelligence tools.

We're actually reinforcing, celebrating their human potential to be original creators, to be innovators, to ask and answer questions that have never been asked and answered before, and to use their human experiences, their cultural diversity, their personal being in the world to create the future out of their own human potential.

So to me, I think, and both of those things are true, and I think practiced. The way that according to, like, the best practices, when education, when writing instruction follows these kind of guidelines that I lay out so eloquently in Rethinking Writing Instruction in the Age of AI, then it can, then education can do both of those things at the same time.

We can provide technological skills for students who are wanting to do 21st century writing. But it can also celebrate the timeless human values that make us want to learn in the first [00:48:00] place.

Ross Romano: Excellent. Well, listeners, you can find the book, Rethinking Writing Instruction and the Age of AI from Cast Publishing. We'll put the link below and you can check out the webpage there and then go out to purchase it wherever you'd like to get your books. You can also subscribe to the Authority Podcast for more author interviews like this one coming your way every week.

Randy, thanks so much for being on the show.

Randy Laist: Thank you, Ross. It was really fun talking to you.

Creators and Guests

Ross Romano
Ross Romano
Co-founder of Be Podcast Network and CEO of September Strategies. Strategist, consultant, and performance coach.
Rethinking Writing Instruction in the Age of AI with Randy Laist