Professors join debate on using AI to teach creative writing

AI’s use of pre-existing works leads some to challenge its potential to be creative. Image courtesy of: Sara Albanese

OSWEGO, N.Y. — The controversy over using artificial intelligence (AI) for creative writing has sparked debate in the literary world. At SUNY Oswego, the creative writing faculty are a small example of this split over whether to include AI in their lessons.

She and economics professor John Kane are working on a symposium in May to address the topic of AI in higher education.

Stephanie Pritchard, a creative writing professor and tutor at the university writing center, contributed to a SUNY-wide guide to educators on how to integrate AI into their teaching. She was at first nervous about AI when she learned about its capabilities, but eventually warmed up to it as a “brainstorming tool.”

“With any big changes come a lot of trepidation and uncertainty,” Pritchard said. 

Pritchard, whose specialty is in poetry, uses AI to come up with writing prompts for her students. She found that the AI prompts prevent her from “falling into a rhythm” of the same assignments each semester.

But Jessie Moore, another creative writing professor, disagrees. She bans any use of generative AI in her classes.

“In creative writing, I think it’s really important that I teach my students how to brainstorm, rather than asking them to use technology to do that,” Moore said.

She experimented with a chatbot by asking it to write in the voice of writers like Roxane Gay, Lindy West and David Sedaris.

The results shocked her; the resemblances were uncanny.

While she does have concerns over the use of AI to cheat and plagiarize, she said her primary concern is “the fact that it even exists in the first place,” since AI programs often use unlicensed copyrighted material.

“Creative writing to me is about being creative, which to me begins even at the generative point,” Moore said.

To Pritchard, hesitance from professors like Moore over integrating AI is completely fine.

“The nice thing I think about being in higher education is that we have the choice about how much or little we want to [do],” Pritchard said.

Still, she believes that learning how to use AI will be “the next Microsoft Word” when it comes to skills for the workplace.

“They’re not going anywhere, and I think we as educators need to acknowledge that they exist,” she said. “I personally believe that I should teach my students how to use the tools effectively because chances are in five years from now one of the qualifications for getting an entry-level job is going to be something like [to] be proficient in some sort of generative AI tool.”

But both Pritchard and Moore said they observed that their creative writing students generally resisted using AI. They agreed that those students tended to prefer their own writing to chatbot writing.

“It’s thinking about, ‘OK now there’s this tool who can—that can do something that I can do about a bazillion times faster,’” Pritchard said. “‘And does that mean that I’m still going to have a job?’”

Moore noticed students nodded enthusiastically when she brought up her generative AI ban at the start of her classes.

“I have a really high confidence that the majority of my students are interested in the art they are pursuing,” Moore said, “Or they wouldn’t be in the class.”

Pritchard noted that in her English composition classes, which involve more analytical writing rather than creative writing, students were actually more willing to learn how to use AI tools to be “stronger writers.”

Michael Murphy, an English professor who serves on the SUNY Council on Writing, said that his students “confirmed [his] sense of the sort of limits of AI, at least in this moment.”

“You actually need to be a fairly good writer to sort of use it well,” Murphy said. “AI complicated the process for [my students] more than it helped them.”

Maura McCloskey, a creative writing major, saw how the rise of AI affected her friends who were artists.

“Some people genuinely think they’re creating something with it and I think that’s either misguided or hedonistic,” McCloskey said. “Some people think it can be used as a tool and I think in the right hands in the right mind that’s an understandable mindset. But I think that in the current climate it’s going too far.”

Courtney Wood, an English major, said she likes AI as a tool.

“It was really interesting just seeing the words unravel,” Wood said. Still, she does not think it can replace human creativity.

While the AI debate has sparked varied opinions on how the technology would affect education and literacy, the debate is not unprecedented. In fact, Murphy noted that debates on what constituted cheating date back to ancient times.

“Once upon a time it was considered cheating to write.” Murphy cited Plato, who argued that by writing instead of remembering information, people would “cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written.”