ChatGPT, Again

I had no intention of returning to the ChatGPT discourse. I said my piece back in December and the conversation seemed to take a histrionic turn around the start of the semester when the course planning period coincided with a wave of op eds that treated AI-writing as an existential crisis.

Moral panics turn tedious in a hurry and I bore easily.

Happily, I think that the discussion is starting to move into a more compelling and, I hope nuanced, direction. In his column at Inside Higher Ed last week, for instance, Matt Reed suggested that there are two issues at play with AI-generated writing. The one, academic dishonesty and how to catch it, receives the bulk of the attention. The other, disinformation and inaccuracies, has to this point received much less attention. In other words, the practical considerations about the norms, expectations, and enforcement of academic transactions are taking precedence over the underlying principles. This sort of priority of course makes sense, as anyone who has worked within the institutions of higher education can tell you, but I also think that it misses that these two issues are inextricably intertwined.

Simply put, I am convinced that ChatGPT specifically, and AI more generally, is a digital and information literacy issue.

Now, I should acknowledge that the stakes involved are more profound outside of the semi-controlled academic context, and at least potentially herald fundamental disruption to existing economic models. Google, for instance, is reportedly treating the chatbot like an existential threat to their hegemony over access to information online. Likewise, AI-generated art is just the latest technology that will allow companies to cut labor costs—why pay artists to create cover-art for a book when you can have an intern churn out AI-generated images until you find one you like? As much as I maintain that AI is a tool and the person producing the art is an artist, companies are not likely to compensate the artist as such under these scenarios. But while both of these are ethical issues related to my point about digital literacy, neither are they wholly new.

When it comes to writing, AI is a tool, and tools are only as good as their users. A spell-Czech [sic] doesn’t provide any value if one doesn’t have the vocabulary to recognize when it misleads, just as gratuitous use a thesaurus can lead the writer astray. Predictive text is fine for email, but I find it distracting in other contexts because the program prompts me down particular lines of composition. And, as I put in the last post on this topic, citation generators will lead you astray if you are unwilling or unable to format the text that it generates.

In this sense, the danger with AI is that people are going to treat a tool for something as a replacement for that thing. But this does not constitute either an existential crisis or a fundamental disruption, despite groups of people treating it as one or the other.

There are a myriad reason that a student might submit an AI-generated essay. Most of these overlap with the reasons a student might purchase an essay or otherwise cheat on assignments, and need to be addressed as such. However, AI should give educators greater pause because, compared to the other forms of dishonesty, AI might give the impression to some students that they don’t need to learn the skill in the first place. Chatbots can give the appearance of engaging with a historical figure, but they do not actually let you converse with that person any more than the Metaverse can allow you to watch Mark Antony debate in Rome in 32 BCE. But that superficial engagement risks drawing people away from the actual substance that would allow the participant to see how the AI turns unredeemed racists into apologists for their heinous beliefs or to recognize that seeing Antony debate in Rome in 32 BCE would be quite a feat because he was in Egypt gearing up for war with Octavian at that time.

On a whim, I decided to ask ChatGPT why students should avoid using the AI to write papers. This was what it produced:

I followed that prompt with a question about whether AI could help students with their writing:

I received a slightly more enthusiastic response when I directly inverted the original prompt, but still as a tool that can make writing easier or more efficient. At my most cantankerous, I dislike several of these uses—text summarization assumes one viable reading that simply isn’t true, which is also my problem with services like Blinkist, and I think that text generation will create pathways that guide how the person writes and thinks about a topic—but I could make similar arguments for writing being shaped by whatever we’re reading and simple reliance on the the first definition of a word found in a dictionary. As I said in my original post, if someone were to use AI as a tool and produce a quality paper either without any further intervention or by editing and polishing the text until it met the standards, that paper would meet my criteria for what I want my students to achieve in the class. This process would not be my preference, but the student would have guided the program through numerous rounds of revision much as they would draft and re-draft any paper that they wrote themselves. So much so that it would be easier to just write the paper, in fact. I doubt that a truly revolutionary thesis could be developed that way, but the student would have demonstrated their mastery of the course material and a sensitive understanding of the writing practices to know that it met standards on my rubric—grammar might be easier to accomplish, but the other categories not so much.

In fact, the arrival of AI makes it all the more important for students to learn skills like reading, writing, and, especially in my discipline, historical literacy. To do this, though, I think it is a mistake to issue blanket prohibitions or build assessment as though it does not exist. Rather, I want students to understand both why AI is not a great choice and what its limitations are, which requires steering into AI, at least a little bit.

This semester I am planning two types of activities, both of which are similar to the suggestions made in an opinion piece published today in Inside Higher Ed.

I scheduled a week for my first year seminar to address their first big writing assignment. The students have no reading this week, during which they will be working on their drafts of their first paper that are due on Friday. In the two class periods earlier in the week, I am going to have them complete an exercise using ChatGPT in their groups for the semester. On Monday, the students will work with ChatGPT to produce papers about the readings that we have covered to this point in the class, sharing with the me the results of the exercise. Then they will be charged with offering a critical evaluation of the generated text, which we will spend time on Wednesday sharing and discussing the critiques with the class, which will segue into a discussion of what makes writing “good.”

Students in my upper-division courses will do a similar exercise. As their first essays approach, I am going to provide students essays produced by ChatGPT using the same prompts and my essay rubric. Their task will be to “mark” the ChatGPT.

The goal is the same in both cases: to remind students that AI has severe limitations that cannot replace their unique thoughts. Further, I aim to engage the students as both writers and editors since I see the latter skill as an essential part of the writing process.

I don’t want suggest a prescriptive advice in this given that my class sizes and teaching mandates allow me to pursue some of these options. But the ChatGPT discourse has made even more convinced that it is necessary to teach basic, foundational, transferrable skills that will empower students to engage responsibly with the world in which they live.

Weekly Varia no. 10, 01/21/23

The first week of the semester is in the books. All three of my classes have gotten off to pretty good starts, but I always forget how exhausting the first week of the semester can be. My to-do list has bloomed (more algae than roses, though) heading into this weekend, so this weekend will be spent slowly working through tasks that range from some administrative upkeep to shorting up soft spots in my reading lists to the first round of grading, lest the semester snowball out of control.

This week’s varia:

  • Daniel Bessner has a good opinion piece in the Times about the perilous state of history. He points out that “deprofessionalization” of the field creates the breeding grounds for ” the ahistoric ignorance upon which reaction relies” because so much “history” is placed in the hands of social media influencers and influential partisan actors like Bill O’Reilly.
  • ChatGPT roundups are just a thing, I guess.
  • The Missouri legislature is currently debating a bunch of CRT-in-education bills. One proposed bill ensures that nobody will be offering kindergartners classes in CRT, a field of study usually reserved for law schools and advanced sociology degrees. I say, why are parents trying to stop their kids from being pushed ahead? More seriously, this is a continuation of last year’s cultural war du jour that treats any sort of training on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion as nefarious CRT and legislates feelings in a way that puts teachers in an impossible position, which is why one proponent of the bill simply refused to define what he meant by it. These sorts of debates only hurt education, but what bothers me most about the committee meeting is the hostility toward education and educators. When a poll revealed that only one school district claimed they taught a class on these issues, the committee chair’s response was “at least one school district was honest.”
  • The Washington Post has a profile of Matt Yglesias, looking at his career as a disrupter, contrarian, and public thinker. Personally, I find Yglesias to be a problematic figure whose primary claim as someone who can spin a plausible argument out of minimal evidence is as symptomatic of where we are as a society as is Donald Trump. Every once in a while he makes a worthwhile point, but, most of the time, he’s functionally firing hot takes that get treated as something more substantial.
  • The re-election campaign for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who appoints the Chicago school superintendent, sent email to schoolteachers asking that they encourage students to work for the campaign in exchange for school credit. This very likely violates ethics rules—especially since there credible (it’s Chicago) accusations of retaliation from the mayor. Students volunteering for campaigns for credit is nothing new, but teachers are not supposed to encourage participation in specific campaigns.
  • The Oversight Board at Meta, which oversees content decisions for both Facebook and Instagram, has told the company that it should “free the nipple” (so to speak). What this will look like is yet to be determined since the company is still likely to want to keep pornography off the platforms, which was the genesis of the policy.
  • A Republican candidate for office in New Mexico has been arrested as the mastermind of a string of shootings that targeted Democratic politicians in the state. The man had to overcome a legal challenge to even stay in the election given his prior felony conviction and, unsurprisingly, he claims that the election was stolen from him.
  • An Indiana woman repeatedly stabbed an 18-year-old student in Indiana University of Asian heritage. The suspect told police that it “would be one less person to blow up our country.”
  • The Kansas City Defender, a black news outlet, reported on the abduction of black women in Kansas City, but the KC police department dismissed the allegations. Then, in December, a woman escaped captivity. Capital B News has an interview with Ryan Sorrell, the founder of the KC Defender, about the story and his efforts to create a crowd-sourced Black missing persons database.
  • Ohio officially declared natural gas “green energy.” The Washington Post has an article on how the campaign ran on Dark Money. Because, of course it did.
  • Americans might be done with the pandemic, but the pandemic is not done with us. Also from the Washington Post, winter COVID surges are a new normal, adding to the typical surges in other respiratory illnesses.
  • Jacinda Ardern is stepping down as Prime Minister of New Zealand, saying that she doesn’t have “enough in the tank” to do the job any longer. While this decision coincides with an uptick in threats against her, I am struck by a politician having the unusual level of self-awareness to know when enough is enough and the combination of humility and privilege to be able to act on that knowledge.
  • Vulture has a good piece on the labor conditions in Hollywood’s VFX studios where the industry standards were developed before the current age of enormous amounts of work after filming, which is leading to systemic understaffing and underpaying made worse by Marvel being a Goliath in the industry.
  • “Marge vs the Monorail” aired thirty years ago this month. Alan Siegel at The Ringer got Conan O’Brien to talk about his idea for the episode as a cross between The Music Man and an Irwin Allen disaster film.

Album of the Week: Counting Crows, This Desert Life

Currently Reading: Marissa R. Moss, Her Country; Rabun M. Taylor, Roman Builders

Some additional information about my first book

Hello, again, bolded alter-ago.

I saw online that you received a physical copy of your book!

Right to the point, I see. A pre-print copy arrived with some other book deliveries yesterday. It was quite a surprise.

You promised me news! And here you are just Tweeting it out. What do you think your name is, Donald, or something?

Not a chance. What would you like me to start with?

I didn’t expect you to be so accommodating. How about the title?

I could give you the title, but what about if I show you the cover at the same time?

Fine.

Pretty. How do I get it?

The book is available for pre-order on the University of Michigan Press website. The book is scheduled for release in March and an electronic book will be available at or around the same time.

Since this is an academic book, I assume that this will cost me an arm, a leg, a kidney, and the deed to my firstborn child. Did I get that right?

Do children come with deeds?

You know what I mean.

I do. This is perhaps the most exciting piece of news. The book will be coming out with University of Michigan Press as a hard cover volume at their normal price point (about $75), but I was offered an option for my book to be included in a new open-access program. The book will still be found in the catalog and available for purchase, but, in effect, I agreed to forgo a paperback version of the book and instead make the e-book open-access.

So you volunteered to sell fewer books. Why?

A few reasons. First, there is very little chance that this book will sell enough to earn me meaningful royalties, with or without a paperback run. I tried to write my book to be approachable and hope that it sells well for an academic book, but I read the contract and am under no illusions that academic publishing will make me rich. Second, open access makes it possible for more people to read my work and that could, at least in theory, open more doors for me. The third reason is more philosophical. I have benefited enormously from scholars and organizations that make their work available for free. I am always looking for opportunities to pay that forward by publishing open access work where I can, even if I generally haven’t been successful with my articles. Given this opportunity, I took it.

Very noble of you.

It is also practical. I have reservations about the sustainability of open-access publishing over the long term and it is not going to resolve the issues of a crumbling higher-ed infrastructure for the humanities and social sciences, but I’m also intimately familiar with the many difficulties that come with publishing as a contingent faculty member. If making my work open access makes the life of any contingent scholar or graduate student a little easier, then it’ll have been worth it.

When I tentatively raised my concerns about sustainability, my editor told me to have that conversation about my next book. Her answer didn’t really assuage my concerns, but I guess I’ll need to write another book.

So, how’s the next book coming?

Patience. I have a few book projects in mind that I am starting to work on, but each of them is likely multiple years out at this point.

Slacker.

Call it what you will. Book writing takes time under the best circumstances and I am one of many professors who don’t receive research leave. I will likely write more books because I want to write more books—in fact, I already have outlines for three more history books and a novel. But what I write and how quickly will depend enormously on how the other parts of my career develop over the next few years.

I’m excited to be moving on to new work after spending the better part of a decade with this one, I’m also going to enjoy seeing this book out in the world.

First Day Fragments: Spring 2023

I usually do “first day fragments” to mark the start of the fall semester, but here on the first day of the spring term I find that I also have a few topics rattling around that are also worth exploring. Only time will tell whether this is a one-off or a new spring-semester routine.

Course design is an exercise in omission. And the more of a survey the course is designed to be, the more this truism cuts close to the truth. This has been on my mind over the last week while preparing for the upcoming semester. Even before the pandemic I had begun adopting a “less is more” mantra in the classroom, and doubling down on core questions and fundamental skills. But I also like big and open-ended questions, both to structure the course and to set as assignment prompts.

This semester I will be teaching upper-division survey courses on Ancient Rome (Romulus to Romulus Augustulus, in theory), Ancient Persia (Achaemenid to Sassanid), and then a first-year seminar on speculative fiction. Enormous topics, all.

Adding material to these courses is the easy part. It would be easy, for instance, to have the students read Beowulf and Le Morte d’Arthur, skip forward to Lord of the Rings, and then do something contemporary. Or just watch the movies. Or I could have decided that we’re going to do an entire course on the thousands of pages in Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty novels. But neither of these options fit with my objectives for the course.

The challenge is finding the right balance. The entire extent of Tolkien that we are going to read will be “On Hobbits” and two short pieces of commentary about Rings of Power. We’ll read Ken Liu’s brilliant short story “Paper Menagerie,” but nothing from his longer works. Ditto for N.K. Jemisin’s “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” which I’m using both as a counterpoint to Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and and as a way to close the semester on a note of optimism after an emotionally challenging set of readings.

ΔΔΔ

All three of my courses this semester are new preps. This is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, new preps make for a lot of work. They require compiling materials as you go through the semester, writing presentation slides, and deciding on how you want to present the material, even when approaching topics that you know well. Some of the activities are going to flop, or maybe the scope of the course needs to be changed. The course wobbles a little, because it has not yet settled into its foundations. A graduate school professor told me once that he believes a course only reaches its mature form in its third iteration.

On the other hand, I sometimes find that certain in-class activities and readings work best the first time I assign them. This is in part because I am forced to spend more time with the readings and preparing the activities, which means that everything is fresher, but I also find something magic in the thrill of invention. The second and third time through I can adjust to how the students experienced the assignment, but this comes at a cost when the assignment becomes somewhat calcified or the pathways that the course discussion become a little more worn in.

ΔΔΔ

People have been talking on Twitter about when professors have an obligation to post the syllabus. My only thought is that the syllabus will go up when it is ready and the course website is minimally ready for use, usually a day or two before the semester starts. I’m happy to answer questions even when the syllabus is in the design phase, but there are a myriad of reasons why it is good to take right up until the last minute making changes even if the basic structure has been set for weeks.

ΔΔΔ

Most of my courses are what my university calls “Writing Enhanced,” which means that they fulfill the standards of that program—emphasis on product, cognition, and process. Nearly twenty years ago when I was an undergraduate student, a writing-enhanced course required a certain number of pages, some of which had to be revised, but my guidance here is more flexible. I have another course design post (yes, I know that this is turning into a teaching-heavy blog) in mind for the near future that engages with the models we use when designing new courses, but, every semester, I have a momentary pang of concern that I’m not having my students write enough. For instance, I have never assigned a long 15–20+ page final paper. Instead, my students write multiple shorter papers (5–7 page) that they revise to a high standard, with the thinking that learning to polish a concise argument in a short paper is a prerequisite for writing a good longer paper when taking research classes. Besides, even without a long research paper to conclude the semester, my students write a lot. By my rough tally, I find that many of my students write nearly twice as much as I did for any class I took as an undergraduate student. Which then sends a flare of concern in the other direction: how much writing is too much?

ΔΔΔ

I wrote about Chat-GPT last semester and stand by everything I wrote there. But the new semester has brought out another round of hand-wringing and panic about how this tool means for higher education. This semester I’ll be leaning into AI writing in some classes with an “AI-essay critique” exercise and otherwise just incorporating it into the conversations we have when we talk about writing. But as the topic du jour, I’m bored by the conversation now. Moral panics turn tedious in a hurry.

Specsitol: a semester reflection

I submitted grades a little over a week ago and promptly withdrew, exhausted, into a little fort with curtain walls made of novels. At least that’s what it felt like. The specific details might be exaggerated.

Several times I tried to break through the fog that had settled over my mind, but succeeded only in producing a silly post about pizza TV shows and the weekly varia post that I start compiling as soon as the previous week’s goes up. I could barely think about the semester that had just ended, let alone put those thoughts into any sort of coherent discussion.

Simply put, I had an exceptionally difficult semester, and one that rates among the very toughest I have ever experienced. Some issues stemmed from causes external to my classes (e.g. not getting some much-needed rest this summer and early semester indexing and proofing a book manuscript that put me perpetually behind), while others stemmed from things that happened in the classes, most of which I don’t want to talk about in this space because I don’t like talking about specific student activity in a public forum even when identifying details have been redacted, especially when there is nothing of universal value that can be gleaned by doing so.

Not every problem stemmed from these issues, of course.

Dissatisfied with traditional forms of grading, I dove headlong into the world of Specifications Grading for most of my courses this semester. To stick with the metaphor, I liked these waters but they also sent me crashing into the rocks.

The formula varied a little bit, class by class, but, in general I came up with a system where the students earned credit across four or five categories of assignments (e.g. journal entries, small assignments/participation, papers). Every assignment was graded using a bespoke rubric and it either met the standard and thus earned credit, or it did not. More work, and higher quality essays (the essay rubric had two tiers, one for basic competency and another for advanced) earned higher grades. To meet these higher standards, I allotted virtual tokens that the students could use either to revise their papers or turn work in late, pegging the number of tokens to the number of papers.

I entered the semester thinking that I had worked out a reasonably simple system that would give students the agency to decide what grade they were aiming for, make my expectations for each grade level clear, and provide in-semester flexibility that would allow students to do their best work. However, I had not anticipated that putting these assignments and expectations up front in the course would lead to cognitive overload for a significant number of students. In fact, I had a conversation in the final week of class with a student who said that this semester was much harder than the course they had taken the semester before even though the workload in the two courses was identical except that I had swapped one short weekly assignment for another. While there are other explanations why this student might have struggled with my course, I’m inclined to take the sentiment at face value because I saw evidence of the same struggle from other students who were struggling to interface with the information that I had provided in a way that made it harder to complete the work itself.

The core of this problem, I think is that many students were used to traditional grading schemes that allow students to muddle through to a passing grade without too much effort. By contrast, the system I devised required students to complete assignments in each category to a specified level in order to earn the grade. Passing my general education courses last semester did not require too much work, unless you simply neglected a graded category.

I am treating this as a messaging problem for now. Traditional grading schemes remain stupid and I’m not ready to abandon my attempt to find something better just yet.

However, the issue of students neglecting grade categories dovetailed with the tokens and flexible deadlines to create absolute chaos on my end. Here there were several intertwined issues.

Several semesters ago I developed a system for deadlines where students could receive an automatic extension by filling out a Google form before the due date. This policy has proven incredibly popular with my students. However, while I intend to keep it intact in some form, I am starting to question whether the system is having the intended effect. Rather than providing students the space to do their best work, I am finding that whatever grace I provide is filled by other classes with stricter deadlines such that my students wind up writing their papers at the last minute anyway, just several days later, and I had so many students taking the extension that it became a challenge to return papers in a timely fashion.

However, it was the tokens that turned this semester into a logistical nightmare. I set up the tokens anticipating that most would be used for revisions, knowing full well that revisions coming in at any point would cause some chaos. What I did not anticipate is that some portion of students would use most or all of their tokens to turn work in late. This meant that I had not only revisions, but also new work being turned in on no particular schedule throughout the semester, and I had difficulty keeping tabs on students who hadn’t turned in assignments, some of whom I knew were working on things and some of whom I did not.

Compounding these issues was, I think, a consequence of having a significant number of first year students. Anecdotally, from talking with friends who teach in high school, some students have been conditioned to think that flexible deadlines and the like mean that an assignment is optional. Or that whatever make-up assignment gets offered will be easier than the original assignment. As one explained:

“I’ll allow X to be redone/revised/resubmitted” is increasingly being taken as “I don’t need to do X, I’ll do the makeup Y later which will be easier anyway.”

This was obviously not what had been intended, but this collision of expectations and conditioning meant that I spent a significant amount of time amid the chaos of trying to grade everything just trying to track down missing work so that the students wouldn’t fail on those grounds. Oh, and I had 50% more students than I had in either semester last year.

Then there was the grading itself. I adopted a specifications system because it promised to offload some portion of the grading onto explicit rubrics where I could check the appropriate box. I loved not assigning grades to papers, but I quickly discovered several things that meant the system created just as much work as the mystery black box of traditional grading, if not more. The issues started because, I discovered, many students simply did not complete the assignments with the rubrics in mind and did not use the rubrics to check the work before submission. This meant that I often received work that did not fulfill the simplest rubrics.

These problems were particularly acute on the written assignments with its long, detailed rubric that should have provided guidance for the papers. I quickly realized that many of my students did not have the writing background to achieve the higher proficiencies, so simply checking the rubric box was not going to provide adequate guidance or encouragement. At the same time, while some students were not going to be aspiring to those grade tiers, I also couldn’t in good conscience provide detailed feedback for some students and not for others until the very end of the semester when the possibilities of revision had passed. By the last two weeks of the term it was clear that I would not be able to get caught up, so I offered that any student who wanted to revise their work could come to office hours and have their paper(s) marked in person so that they could receive feedback on how to meet the next tier. These meetings gave any student meant that (I think) any student aiming for higher grade tiers reached them, but they also meant that those weeks were a whirlwind of paper conferences.

Finally, my small assignments policy put a cherry on top of this disaster sundae.

The policy was simple. There were some number of small papers, in-class activities, exit-tickets, one-minute essays, and other activities that took place in class. If you weren’t there, you couldn’t make up the work. Unless you were an athlete at a competition. Or you got sick. Or had other “excused” absences. Right from the start, I found myself litigating what counts as a legitimate absence, which is one of my least favorite parts about taking attendance. Then, like with non-completion of work, I found myself around the middle of the semester worried about the number of students who seemed liable to fail (or otherwise drop grade tiers) because they had failed to adequately participate in the class. Since the opportunities for these points often did not come at regular intervals, I found myself inventing “optional extra” opportunities that would allow the students to bring their grade in that category up, which, in turn, created confusion about what assignments students actually needed to complete. Often, the students who completed the optional assignments were not the ones I had in mind when I created them. And, of course, adding all of these small assignments created a flurry of paperwork that I had to manage.

Chaos.

I should point out that for a non-negligible percentage of my students this system worked exactly as I envisioned, giving them agency to achieve grades based on their goals for the semester. Had I not felt compelled to give the students aiming for the “C” the same level of feedback I gave to those aiming for an “A,” my grading might have even been manageable—but, of course, almost everyone said that they were aiming for an “A” back in August.

I am not ready to abandon this grading mode, just yet, but it needs to be modified in critical ways for it to become sustainable and productive. The changes I have in mind to this point are:

  • Streamline my messaging and expectations. This means not only being clear about my expectations in terms of earning credit across multiple categories, but also clarifying that this is a labor-based grading scheme. It is designed to be transparent and achievable, but not necessarily easy. At the same time…
  • I want to submerge the mechanics of the participation grade. Some of the chaos this semester was created by the various points that students earned for doing in-class activities, which meant that this was something I had to track. I am not planning to change the activities that I do for small assignments, but my current thought for this category is to take a page out of the “ungrading” playbook. Instead of me assigning grading, the students will complete three reflections, one at the start, one at the middle, and one at the end of the term. The first one will set expectations and think about where they are at the start of the course. The middle two reflections will both have the students assign themselves a percentile grade for their own engagement with the course material. I will then plug the final percentile grade into a formula that adds or subtracts points based on attendance and maybe what percentage of small assignments they complete where perfect participation and attendance adds to score, a range results in no change, and excessive missed classes and activities results in lost points. I see a number of ways that this could go horribly wrong and I’m still working out the kinks, but it would also relieve the demand for me to track so many different assignments or create “optional” work.
  • I am going to rewrite the longer rubrics both to make them easier to follow and so that the students can explicitly use them as checklists. Similarly, I am going to print these rubrics and distribute them directly to my students.
  • Ditto for handouts on things like writing. I provide a lot of resources for the skills that I ask the students to master in these classes, but I find that even when directing students to them via presentation in front of the class, they are not being used because most students forget that they are there. I remember sticking handouts into my backpack never to be seen again, but at least having been handed a physical copy of something might help jog memories.
  • I am changing the token system. Tokens will only be used for turning in assignments late and probably limited to just 2, with a reward to the participation grade for every token left unused. Revision will be limited to the papers, but allowed for every paper, albeit probably with firmer deadlines for when a first round of revisions need to be complete.
  • Since none of this addresses how much time I spent responding to individual papers this semester, I am also likely going to lean more heavily on the language in the rubric and invite students looking to revise their papers to higher levels of achievement to come for conferences earlier in the semester.

Looking over these changes, there are still parts of this system I am concerned about. The ungrading formula, for instance, is an awkward beast to explain in the syllabus and it could lead to uncertainty about how the various non-paper assignments contribute to their grade. But I also think that there is a real possibility that these changes might be able to preserve what I liked about last semester while also steering into the sorts of written and metacognitive exercises that I find particularly valuable for students in a way that will make it a more sustainable and productive learning environment for everyone involved.

What is “the college essay,” or ChatGPT in my classroom

Confession: I don’t know what is meant by “the college essay.”

This phrase has been the shorthand for a type of student writing deployed over the past few weeks in a discussion about the relationship between college classes and AI programs like ChatGPT-3 that launched in November, which I touched on in a Weekly Varia a few weeks ago. These programs produce a block of unique text that imitates the type of writing requested in response to a prompt. In its outline, input/output mimics what students do in response to prompts from their professors.

The launch of ChatGPT has led to an outpouring of commentary. Stephen Marche declared in The Atlantic that the college essay is dead and that humanists who fail to adjust to this technology will be committing soft suicide, which followed on from a post earlier this year by Mike Sharples declaring that this algorithm had produced a “graduate level” essay. I have also seen anecdotal accounts of professors who have caught students using ChatGPT to produce papers and concern about being able to process this as an honor code violation both because the technology is not addressed explicitly in the school’s regulation and because they lacked concrete evidence that it was used. (OpenAI is aware of these concerns, and one of their projects is to watermark generated text.) Some professors have suggested that this tool will give them no choice but to return to in-class, written tests that are rife with inequities.

But among these rounds of worry, I found myself returning to my initial confusion about the nature of “the college essay.” My confusion, I have decided, is that the phrase is an amorphous, if not totally empty, signifier that generally refers to whatever type of writing that a professor thinks his or her students should be able to produce. If Mike Sharples’ hyperbolic determination that the sample produced in his article is a “graduate level” essay is any guide, these standards can vary quite wildly.

For what it is worth, ChatGPT is pretty sure that the phrase refers to an admissions personal statement.

When I finished my PhD back in 2017, I decided that I would never assign an in-class test unless there was absolutely no other recourse (i.e. if someone above me demanded that I do so). Years of grading timed blue-book exams had convinced me that these exams were a mismatch for what history courses were claiming to teach, while a combination of weekly quizzes that the students could retake as many times as they want (if I’m asking the question, I think it is worth knowing) and take-home exams would align better with what I was looking to assess. This also matched with pedagogical commitment to writing across the curriculum. The quizzes provided accountability for the readings and attention to the course lectures, as well as one or more short answer questions that tasked the students with, basically, writing a thesis, while the exams had the students write two essays, one from each of two sets of questions that they were then allowed to revise. Together, these two types of assignments allowed the students to demonstrate both their mastery over the basic facts and details of the course material and the higher-order skills of synthesizing material into an argument.

My systems have changed in several significant ways since then, but the purpose of my assignments has not.

First, I have been moving away from quizzes. This change has been a concession to technology as much as anything. Since starting this system on Canvas, I moved to a job that uses Blackboard and I have not been able to find an easy system for grading short answer questions. I still find these quizzes a valuable component of my general education courses where they can consist entirely of true/false, multiple choice, fill in the blank, and other types of questions that are automatically graded. In upper-level courses where I found the short-answer questions to be the most valuable part of the assignment, by contrast, I am simply phasing them out.

Second, whether as a supplement to or in lieu of the quizzes, I have started assigning a weekly course journal. In this assignment, the students are tasked with choosing from a standard set of prompts (e.g. “what was the most interesting thing you learned this week,” “what was something that you didn’t understand this week form the course material? Work through the issue and see if you can understand it,” “what was something that you learned this week that changes something you previously wrote for this course?”) and then writing roughly a paragraph. I started assigning these journals in spring 2022 and they quickly became my favorite things to grade because they are a low-stakes writing assignment that give me a clear insight into what the students have learned from my class. Where the students are confused, I can also offer gentle guidance.

Third, I have stopped doing take-home exams. I realized at some point that, while take home exams were better than in-class exams, my students were still producing exam-ish essay answers and I was contributing to this problem in two ways. First, two essays was quite a lot of writing to complete well in the one week that I allotted for the exam. Second, by calling it an exam most students were treating it as only a marginal step away from the in class exam where one is assessed on whether they have the recall and in-the-moment agility to produce reasonable essays in a short period of time.

What if, I thought, I simply removed the exam title and spread the essays out over multiple paper assignments?

The papers I now assign actually use some of the same prompts that I used to assign on exams, which were big questions in the field the sort that you might see on a comprehensive exam, but I now focus on giving the students tools to analyze the readings and organize their thoughts into good essays. Writing, in other words, has become an explicit part of the assignment, and every paper is accompanied by a meta-cognitive reflection about the process.

Given this context, I was more sanguine about ChatGPT than most of the commentary I had seen, but, naturally, I was curious. After all, Sharples had declared that a piece of writing it produced was graduate level and Stephen Marche had assessed it lower, but still assigned it a B+. I would have marked the essay in question lower based on the writing (maybe a generous B-), and failed it for having invented a citation (especially for a graduate class!), but I would be on firmer footing for history papers of the sort that I grade, so I decided to run an experiment.

The first prompt I assigned is one that will, very likely, appear in some form or another in one of my classes next semester: “assess the causes underlying the collapse of the Roman Republic and identify the most important factor.” I am quite confident in assigning the AI a failing grade.

There were multiple issues with ChatGPT’s submission, but I did not expect the most obvious fault with the essay. The following text appeared near the end of the essay.

Vercingetorix’ victory was, I’m sure, quite a surprise for both him and Julius Caesar. If I had to guess, the AI conflated the fall of the Roman Republic with the fall of the Roman Empire, thus taking the talking points for the Empire and applying them to the names from the time of the Republic. After all, ChatGPT produces text by assembling words without understanding the meaning behind them. Then again, this conflation also appears in any number of think-pieces about the United States as Rome, too.

But beyond this particular howler, the produced text has several critical issues.

For one, “Internal conflict, economic troubles, and military defeats” are exceptionally broad categories each of which could make for a direction to take the paper, but together they become so generic as to obscure any attempt at a thesis. “It was complex” is a general truism about the past, not a satisfactory argument.

For another, the essay lacks adequate citations. In the first attempt, the AI produced only two “citations,” both listed at the end of the paper. As I tell my students, listing sources at the end isn’t the same thing as citing where you are getting the information. Upon some revision, the AI did manage to provide some in-text citations, but not nearly enough and not from anything I would have assigned for the class.

A second test, using a prompt I did assign based on Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden, produced similarly egregious results. The essay had an uninspired, but a mostly adequate thesis, at least as a starting point, but then proceeded to use three secondary sources, none of which existed in the format that they were cited. Unless the substantial C.V. of the well-published scholar Sarah C. Chambers is missing a publication on a topic outside her central areas of research, she hasn’t argued what the paper claims she did.

A third test, about Hellenistic Judea, cited an irrelevant section of 1 Maccabees and a chapter in the Cambridge History of Judaism, albeit about Qumram and neither from the right volume nor with the right information for the citation. You get the idea.

None of these papers would have received a passing grade from me based on citations alone even before I switched to a specifications grading model. And that is before considering that the AI does even worse with metacognition, for obvious reasons.

In fact, if a student were to provide a quality essay produced by ChatGPT that was accurate, had a good thesis, and was properly cited, and then explained the process by which they produced the essay in their metacognitive component, I would give that student an A in a normal scheme or the highest marks in my specs system. Not only would such a task be quite hard given the current state of AI, but it would also require the student to know my course material well enough to identify any potential inaccuracies and have the attention to detail to make sure that the citations were correct, to say nothing of demonstrating the engagement through their reflection. I don’t mind students using tools except when those tools become crutches that get in the way of learning.

In a similar vein, I have no problem with students using citation generators except that most don’t realize that you shouldn’t put blind faith in the generator. You have to know both the citation style and the type of source you are citing well enough to edit whatever it gives you, which itself demonstrates your knowledge.

More inventive teachers than I have been suggesting creative approaches to integrating ChatGPT into the classroom as a producer of counterpoints or by giving students opportunities to critique its output, not unlike the exercise I did above. I have also seen the suggestion that it could be valuable for synthesizing complex ideas into digestible format, though this use I think loses something by treating a complex text as though it has only one possible meaning. It also produces a reasonable facsimile of discussion questions, though it struggles to answer them in a meaningful way.

I might dabble with some of these ideas, but I also find myself inclined to take my classes back to the basics. Not a return to timed, in-class tests, but doubling down on simple, basic ideas like opening student ideas to big, open-ended questions, carefully reading sources (especially primary sources) and talking about what they have to say, and how to articulate an interpretation of the past based on those sources–all the while being up front with the students about the purpose behind these assignments.

My lack of concern about ChatGPT at this point might reflect how far from the norm my assessment has strayed. I suspect that when people refer to “the college essay,” they’re thinking of the one-off, minimally-sourced essay that rewards superficial proficiency of the sort that I grew frustrated with. The type of assignment that favors expedience over process. In this sense, I find myself aligned with commentators who suggest that this disruption should be treated as an opportunity rather than an existential threat. To echo the title from a recent post at John Warner’s SubStack, “ChatGPT can’t kill anything worth preserving.”

Weekly Varia no. 5, 12/17/22

Winter appears to be setting in for real in this corner of Northern Missouri. I am looking out a window at snowflakes bouncing on the wind while I write these words and it has been below consistently below freezing for the past few days, though the forecast is calling for a slight reprieve for a few days before the next polar vortex sets in for the upcoming holiday. I happen to like winter weather, don’t mind the cold, and am not daunted by a few flurries, but I have also been finding myself sipping my tea and wondering how this weather is going to affect my running since this is the longest stretch I have ever managed to run outdoors in my life.

The other topic I find running through my mind on this Saturday morning is related to the Jon Lauck and Steven Mintz links in this week’s roundup (see below). While the job market for history PhDs has been somewhere between bad and very bad for a long time, Lauck offers data that suggests that it is positively catastrophic: of 1799 history PhDs granted between 2019 and 2020, only 175 are “full-time faculty members,” and those numbers are warped by the years of backlog leading up to 2019 that caused people like me (2017 PhD) to still be job hunting. The issue, fundamentally, is that colleges and universities are not hiring to replace retirees. Lauck provides a sample of Midwestern universities, including both my PhD-granting institution and my current employer, that have cut 34% of their faculty lines on average over the past ten years. This is bad. However, as often emerges in these debates, the data is also a little misleading. Truman State (my employer) in his data went from 15 tenured or tenure track historians to 4, but the latter number doesn’t count me or the other two full-time year-to-year faculty members in the department. It is still a catastrophic decline and it is extremely difficult to build sustainable programs that attract students on the back of faculty who don’t know whether they will be teaching the following year, but it also removes nearly half of our faculty from the conversation.

Likewise, while I share the sentiment found online that big professional organizations and a lot of secure faculty at prestigious institutions are complacent about the state of the field in ways that contribute to its degradation, I can say with certainty that my tenured colleagues are furious that their staffing requests to replace tenure lines are routinely approved for year-to-year hires. This is short-term thinking on the part of our institutions, but it is also the state of play. Even beyond self-interest, this is why I have dedicated so much time and energy to contingent faculty issues over the past few years. Tenure is a wonderful idea, but I think that the future of the field requires urgent action to change both perceptions and working conditions of the people who didn’t win that particular lottery. To that end, I am fortunate to work at an institution with colleagues both on and off the tenure line who agree and an active AAUP chapter that has been fighting to create a more sustainable future.

This week’s varia:

  • Researchers mapping the floor of Lake Mjøsa, Norway’s largest lake, looking for dumped munitions discovered a shipwreck that could date to as early as the 1300s.
  • At Everyday Orientalism, Rachel Yuen-Collingridge writes about her decades as a contingent scholar. She concludes: “Let us be able to look upon eclectic, experimental, flexible professional identities and pursuits as signs of vitality not of a lack of focus, ambition, and seriousness. If we truly want to change contingency or contribute to its change, perhaps a good starting point is to challenge the cultures of contingency and the hierarchies which feed upon it.” Shorter: we need to change the structural insecurity and pay equity issues, but those substantive changes are impossible without changing the perception that contingent faculty are less than full time ones.
  • Pasts Imperfects is a great weekly newsletter dealing with antiquity. This week (12.15.22): Hpone Myint Tu has a short piece and reading lists about animals in the ancient Mediterranean, along with snippets from Sarah Bond’s recent article at Hyperallergic about new research by Jordan Pickett into the intersection of Christianity and Roman baths and a recent article about excavations at the Aksumite city of Adulis in modern Eritrea.
  • Chanukah is coming up and Alana Vincent has a really nice piece at Time about the rituals around a holiday that is both minor and “the primary festival of Jewish visibility.” My favorite observation is that the current celebration is one that the Maccabees themselves would have hated.
  • Jon K. Lauck offers a stark assessment of the state of history departments in the Midwest in the Middle West Review (from September). I don’t know that his prescription is viable and think both that the causes are a little more varied and the some of the data about support for history softer than is implied here, but, speaking both as a graduate and current faculty member of programs mentioned in this survey: he’s not wrong in the big picture. Lauck’s data provides the foundation for Steven Mintz’ latest column at Inside Higher Ed, where he, not unreasonably, suggests that we’re seeing an “end of history” in the sense that it is a discipline literally being downsized.
  • Paul Thomas adds his voice to the chorus of writing teachers saying that ChatGPT is only a threat to writing assessments desperately in need of changing, pointing out that this is a redux of the Turnitin problem. There were additional articles on this topic last week.
  • If you’ve ever wanted to hear the phrase “the first time anyone ever asserted a First Amendment right to see the president’s son’s penis, an argument that the Framers likely did not anticipate,” then Adam Serwer in the Atlantic has you covered. Starting from the so-called “Twitter Files” being published by Elon Musk’s flunkies and the issue of stories about Hunter Biden’s laptop that Twitter suppressed because they contained nude images, Serwer expands out into a compelling discussion about how the conservative movement is warping interpretations of the first amendment and offers a narrow defense of social media companies.
  • “Free speech” on Twitter means blocking journalists who are critical of new ownership, ostensibly because they are posting information that is a direct threat to Musk and his family even though the alleged footage was nowhere near him (both links to Gizmodo). In the sense that every accusation that reactionary conservatives have levied against people they don’t like has been a matter of projection, capricious bans such as these were all-but inevitable.
  • Judd Legum and Rebecca Crosby at Popular Information report on how a man named Bruce Friedman has been exploiting recent legislation in Florida to flood school districts with demands that they remove material from school library without having either read the books in question or providing evidence that the books are causing harm to students.
  • German special forces raided more than 150 properties around Germany and arrested 25 people accused of plotting a coup to topple the German state and establish a new monarchy. The central figure in the coup is Heinrich XIII, the 71-year-old scion of an aristocratic family, but, more concerning, the arrested ringleaders include members of the German security service (BBC).
  • Emily Stewart at Vox lays out the current state of the Sam Bankman-Fried FTX saga and starts to explore what I think are the more substantial concerns surrounding the lurid saga, namely that while the scale of the crimes in this case are spectacular, but the crimes themselves are quite ubiquitous and the media and financial apparatuses in the modern US provide superficial cover for people like SBF to profit.
  • From a few weeks ago, BBC has a story about the kenari nut which could have a future as a dairy substitute and developing commercial possibilities might stem deforestation in Indonesia.

Album of the week: Kitchen Dwellers, “Wise River”

Now reading: Brandon Sanderson, The Lost Metal; Michael J. Decker, The Sasanian Empire at War

#AcWriMo 2022 Recap

Back at the start of November, I set for myself writing targets for #AcWriMo. In the spirit of accountability, this post reviews those targets.

1. Finish and submit my three outstanding short pieces. They just need to be off my plate so that I can focus on something else.

I completed two of the three, but I chose to hold off on sending them off until I have finished the third. I’m optimistic that this can happen by the end of the year.

2. Spend at least one hour each week writing on one of my new academic projects. For this goal I’m going to set an absurd (for me) target of 500 words an hour, for a minimum of 2,000 fresh words on top of whatever else I write this month.

I spent an hour writing on new projects in two of the four weeks. Four would have been better, of course, but these projects are in a state such that any progress is good progress.

3. Write one book review blog post per week.

I published two review posts in November, one on The Final Strife, one on The Medieval Crossbow.

4. Write one other blog post per week. Writing begets writing, as they say.

Aided in no small part by the decision to start publishing a weekly roundup of news and stories that I read in a given week, I achieved this target. I published four posts, a What is Making Me Happy on my new tea infuser, a post about Twitter, and two weekly varia posts.

5. Continue writing in my journal every night. In particular: November has 30 days: write 28 entries.

I wrote 26 entries in 30 days. One of those might have been in a morning, rather than an evening.

6. Write a recap blog post for December 1 that reviews the targets and reflects on my month in writing.

I missed this by a couple of days but met it in spirit.

If you’re a stickler for such things, I successfully completed one of my six writing goals in November. Spiritually, though, this was a wildly successful #AcWriMo. I set my targets with the understanding that this is the busiest time of my year and that good writing habits are the secret to a good writing routine. (The secrets to good writing, on the other hand are a little more arcane and involve reading, attention to the poetry of language, and learning to edit, but you can’t write well until you write.) While I didn’t hit these targets, I made demonstrable progress on every one of them and, in so doing, primed the pump for more writing just as soon as I finish the final grading push of the semester.

#AcWriMo2022

It is November first, which means that it is once against AcWriMo, an academic writing challenge inspired by National Novel Writing Month.

I read through my blog archive in preparation for this post, as I often do when I sit down to write this sort of annual post. After all, I get frustrated with myself when it seems that I am writing the same things over and over. This tag first appeared in 2012, just one year after PhD2Published launched the challenge. I was a second year PhD student at the time, just starting to send ill-fated article manuscripts off for review and preparing for my comprehensive exams with not even the slightest inkling what my dissertation project would end up being.

(How I came to that project is a curious story that points to my atypical journey through graduate school.)

The tag then fell dormant for six years only to begin an annual appearance in 2018, a year and a half after I received my PhD and at a time when I was working on my book proposal. I wrote four posts that year, following a series of prompts created by Margy Thomas of Scholarshape that were designed to inspire metacognitive reflection on the writing process.

2019 saw just one post that was quite gloomy and frustrated because I felt that I was nearing the end of the road in academia. 2020, year one of the pandemic, was more of the same, except now with an attempted return to the goal-setting mandate. I did not hit my goals. By November 2021 I had started my current job and I was starting to acclimate to my schedule and established a single goal of a month-long metacognitive exercise about my writing…that I also did not hit.

So where does that leave me for 2022?

2022 has been a good year for my writing overall, if also more boom-and-bust than is ideal. I started the year with an article that had been rejected a couple of times getting accepted at Classical Quarterly and submitting the final manuscript for my first book at University of Michigan Press. That book has now also gone through copy edits and proof. Between these stages I also turned in five of the eight small pieces that I had outstanding between the pandemic and conditions of my employment, as well as a delivering a conference paper and a book review. The progress has mostly been confined to projects years in the making, though, and I’m having more trouble creating the space for new writing projects.

I have also recently returned to writing in a journal more or less nightly, both as a quiet, cathartic way to wind down before bed and as an extension of my writing discipline. Once upon a time I wrote in that space most days, often as a way of settling my mind before jumping into work on my dissertation. I fell out of that habit in the past few years, but I find that I maintain better equilibrium when I giving myself the space to write in my journal.

The other way that 2022 has been good for my writing is that I started a virtual writing group with Vicky Austen. I have participated in these in the past run by people in the UK, but I’m not in a place right now where I can reasonably wake up at 3am to write, so I suggested that we start one for those of us in this hemisphere. The practice of setting aside two hours twice a week to work in a communal, supportive environment has been enormously helpful as I am trying to re-establish a regular writing habit rather than one that means working feverishly to hit deadlines and then slumps because I’m forced to set aside that work in order to catch up on everything else that I fell behind on because I was writing.

This year I am setting for myself six targets for AcWriMo:

  1. Finish and submit my three outstanding short pieces. They just need to be off my plate so that I can focus on something else.
  2. Spend at least one hour each week writing on one of my new academic projects. For this goal I’m going to set an absurd (for me) target of 500 words an hour, for a minimum of 2,000 fresh words on top of whatever else I write this month.
  3. Write one book review blog post per week. These posts have been a casualty of the general chaos of my life recently, but I want to get back in the habit of writing them for some, if not all, of the books I read. First up is Stuart Ellis-Gorman’s The Medieval Crossbow which I promised to review after I won it in his online giveaway.
  4. Write one other blog post per week. Writing begets writing, as they say.
  5. Continue journaling every night. In particular: November has 30 days: write 28 entries.
  6. Write a recap blog post for December 1 that reviews the targets and reflects on my month in writing.

I see two potential complications with this set of targets.

First, one might reasonably ask whether these targets are suitably academic—which one might ask about so much of what I end up doing. The first two goals clearly fit the bill, while the back three are more about using this month to re-establish good writing habits. Basically, when I write more in general I end up writing more on my academic projects.

Second, I am curious whether this is yet another instance of unreachable targets that will be counter-productive when it comes to building the sustainable habits that I claim to want. This is of particular note because four of these five goals are set on top of whatever other writing I do. I guess there is only one way to find out.

On Privilege

I often see discourse about things happening on Twitter before I see the “offending” tweet. This weekend one thread of the discourse centered on a professor who has books in his office that he gives to students who express interest.

The lines were drawn.

On the one side: people who praised the practice as an act of intellectual generosity.

On the other: those who consider it a mark of extreme privilege.

To be honest, I was confused about the whole thing until I saw the original tweet. My campus office is lined with shelves that I am progressively filling with research and teaching materials, some from the library, some from my personal collection. I have given away a number of books over the years as a process of curating my library, but it struck me as a bit extreme to give away books that I might want to use.

However, my confusion dissipated when I saw the original tweet. The professor had a large, well-lit office with a few chairs in front of a wooden desk. Around the outside of the office were shelves that he had curated to look more like an inviting bookstore display designed to invite students into his research speciality. In other words, the office looked like a space for engaging students and not primarily the place where he was conducting his research—whether or not he is also using it for that.

To the charge of privilege, I think the answer has to be “yes, and?” That office, those shelves, and the students are all marks of privilege, but so what? What is the alternative?

There are basically three options when it comes to privilege:

  1. Reap the benefits while remaining oblivious to, and/or silent about, where those benefits come from and thus tacitly endorse the status quo.
  2. Reap the benefits while seeking to further entrench systems that will benefit you to the maximal extent.
  3. Reap the benefits, but also use the privilege to help others.

That is, performative self-flagellation won’t offset the existence of privilege. The question is not whether someone has privilege, but what they are choosing to do with their privilege. I am of course jealous of this professor’s office and I wish I had the resources to give away books more freely, but it also seems patently absurd to become outraged online at someone sharing an act of intellectual and financial generosity.

I suspect that this outrage, to the extent that it is sincere, stems from a couple of places.

First, the nature of academia plants a toxic combination of entitlement, bitterness, and competition in some people who become disillusioned with their lot in it. These people often believe that they ought to be somewhere more prestigious and they treat every interaction as a zero-sum game in the service of advancing themselves. This is a reaction to systemic factors made worse in our current age of austerity, social media, burnout that has accompanied pandemic teaching. Thus the hostile reaction to seeing acts of generosity.

The second, I think, is a function of the way society approaches philanthropy and personal branding. In his 2018 book, Winners Take All, Anand Giriharadas made an argument that modern philanthropy is a charade (according to the subtitle) wherein elites make a big hullaballoo about their efforts to improve the world, but then structure their programs to maximize both tax breaks and profits and thus further entrench their own position in elite society. This theme also emerges in Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain about the Sackler dynasty. At the same time, contemporary viral economic advice seems to fetishize entrepreneurship and personal branding. Taken together, it is possible view every every act of generosity or kindness expressed on social media cynically as an attempt at personal branding that clearly must have an ulterior motive. The charge of “privilege,” in this context, is levied as a way to somehow delegitimize that generosity.

There are reasons to be suspicious of elite philanthropy, many of our economic systems are structured around pitting people against one another, and social media is a cancer eating away at our brains, but neither of these explanations hold water at the end of the day. This professor is operating from a place of privilege, so what? Privilege is, but when given an opportunity this person also gives away books to his students. While not every act of generosity is going to be the gift of books, is this general idea of giving back not something that we all ought to aspire to?