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How (Not) to Use ChatGPT in Your Undergraduate Political Theory Class

Should you be using ChatGPT to help you with your essays? In some ways yes, in some ways no.

If you use ChatGPT well, you will benefit greatly: it is a powerful tool that will help improve your writing and thinking. It’s as if you had a kind of 24-hour private tutor. Great! But if you use ChatGPT poorly, you will harm yourself badly in this course: on the one hand, you will rob yourself of going through the process that will teach you the skills you’re supposed to learn in this course; on the other hand, you will set yourself up to flail on the final exam. Boo! So yes, use it, but be very careful how you do it. Here are my guidelines for how to use it well.

First, remember that writing essays for your undergraduate political theory class has three interrelated objectives:

1. to learn how to develop your ideas and to think critically;

2. to learn how to write thesis-driven essays; and

3. to prepare for the final exam (which will, among other things, require you to write thesis-driven essays on the course material).

But note: it is by actually going through the process of writing essays that you will meet these three objectives. The finished product of the essay is a very small part of that process. If you skip the rest, big problem for you.

Let’s be more specific. Many of you will never have been exposed to the kind of thesis-driven essay you are required to write for your introductory political theory class with me. So many of you will not know how to do it at the start of the semester. This means that you may flail around when you are writing your first essay. That’s OK. The first round is supposed to give you a chance to practise, get feedback, and learn what kind of beast a “thesis-driven essay” is. You may even get a poor grade. That’s also OK, since you’ll have opportunities in your intro class to write bonus papers and have your lowest grade dropped. The key is to go through the (sometimes painful) process of trying, going through the necessary steps, possibly not succeeding at each step the first time around, learning, and then doing it again. The key is to go through the steps. So what are the steps?

Here are some typical steps you would go through to write an essay:

A. Stage 1: Sketch out your ideas:

1. The Steps:

a. First, decide on your topic. If you have received a prompt from the professor, you already have a topic.

b. Second, decide on your thesis, the claim you want to defend. You are trying to learn how to come up with this idea on your own.

c. Third, outline some basic lines of argument to defend your thesis.

d. Fourth, come up with some basic objections to your thesis or argument, and pick the best one to deal with.

e. Jot out an outline of all this.

2. ChatGPT here? NO! Do not use ChatGPT in Stage 1. Here’s why:

a. You are trying to develop the skills of coming up with a thesis, thinking of arguments, and imagining objections. (This will be a new thing for many of you: as I said, many of you have not ever written thesis-driven essays before.)

b. Using ChatGPT will short circuit the learning process. If you ask ChatGPT to do this part for you, you won’t develop the skills. Boo!

c. And if you have not honed these skills by the time the exam rolls around, you will flail on the final exam. Also boo! (Remember: on the exam, you’ll have to do the same thing, but much faster and without anyone’s help. You need to learn how to do this.)

d. So you might as well just not take this class if that’s how it’s going to be.

3. Getting Help: If you are having trouble with any of the steps in Stage 1 (for example, if you are not sure of what to write on, want to refine your thesis, are unsure of your arguments, are having trouble with your outline as a whole, etc.), then try discussing it with your peers, TA, or professor. Running your thesis or main argument by your TA is a great idea. Talking to peers who might disagree with you is an especially good way of finding out what the strongest objections to your thesis or arguments are. (Notice I referred to getting help to “refine” your thesis. You are the one who ultimately has to come up with a thesis.)

B. Stage 2: Draft your paper:

1. The Steps:

a. Begin your first draft by stating your thesis as clearly and precisely as you can in one or two sentences in the opening paragraph.

b. Then write a paragraph or two for each of your arguments.

c. Then write a paragraph or two stating and dealing with the objection you wish to consider.

2. ChatGPT here? NO! Do not use ChatGPT in Stage 2. Here’s why:

a. Remember objective 1: think. To learn how to develop your ideas and to think critically, you need to do it yourself. Sure, it’d be way easier to get ChatGPT to give you ideas and critical examinations of arguments. But then you wouldn’t be honing your own skills at doing this.

b. Remember objective 2: write. To learn how to write well, you need to make mistakes. You need to flail around. You need to do this yourself. Otherwise, you won’t learn how.

c. Remember objective 3: prepare. If you turn to ChatGPT at this stage, you will fail to prepare for the final exam.

3. Getting Help: If you are having trouble with stage 2, try going as far as you can on your own—however imperfectly. And then, with some written work of your own in hand, whether a few paragraphs or even a whole draft, meet with your instructors to run by your ideas.

C. Stage 3: Revise your draft:

1. The Steps:

a. In revising your draft, you want to check for all the criteria outlined in the syllabus: written expression, structure, format, analytical rigour, originality, scholarship, etc.

b. In particular, if there are problems of style, grammar, punctuation, spelling, formatting, etc., you need to fix all these at this stage. These kinds of problems are a major distraction for readers: if left uncorrected, they will prevent your reader from concentrating on your argument. Think of these elements as the bare minimum that needs to be in place for a good essay.

c. Check to make sure your arguments are good by asking the following question: If someone who disagrees with your thesis were to read your paper, would they possibly be moved to change their mind?

d. Check to make sure the objection you are dealing with is a good one by asking the following question: If someone disagrees with your paper, would this be their strongest reason for disagreeing with you?

2. ChatGPT here? Yes! Use ChatGPT in Stage 3. Here’s how and why:

a. Some of you, especially those who are not native English-speakers, may wish to use a writing tutor to help you improve the written expression in your drafts.

b. But you can also use ChatGPT as a kind of 24/7 tutor. You can plug in your paragraphs and ask it for help in improving grammar, style, etc. Doing it this way—feeding it your own prose to help you revise—is not cheating because it actually helps you work on your own writing. So ChatGPT can be an incredible learning tool here! But be careful: in making stylistic improvements, ChatGPT sometimes gives suggestions making your prose less precise. So you have to make sure you are not losing out on the other, substantive criteria that matter for your essay, such as analytical rigour. Use your own judgement about what suggestions to incorporate into your writing! And of course, after turning to ChatGPT, you can also always follow up by meeting with your instructors.

c. Caution: You may be tempted to ask ChatGPT for help in actually formulating the substance of your arguments and objection. Be careful here. On the one hand, once you have already written out your arguments and objections on your own, there is no problem in running them by other people to check for their strength or weakness, and you can treat ChatGPT as just another “person” for these purposes. On the other hand, just as you should not rely on others to actually come up with your arguments in the first place, you don’t want to rely on ChatGPT earlier in the process either (remember: that’s Stage 2). If you do that, then you will short-circuit the process you need to go through to develop your own critical thinking and writing skills and to prepare for the final exam.

3. Getting Help: In stage 3, avail yourself of all the help you need in the ways I’ve outlined above, whether from your peers, ChatGPT, your TA, or your professor.

So here is a summary of how to use ChatGPT and why:

A. Summary rules of thumb for using ChatGPT:

1. Don’t use ChatGPT to help you sketch out your ideas for the paper or to write up a first draft.

2. Do you use ChatGPT like a tutor to help you edit and revise your draft.

B. Summary of reasons:

1. Don’t use ChatGPT for sketching and drafting because realizing your three objectives—to learn to think critically, write thesis-driven essays, and prepare for your final exam—depends on you actually going through the process of writing your own essays throughout the semester, receiving critical feedback from your instructors (and ChatGPT!) on your own writing, and improving at each round. If you cheat by using ChatGPT to write essays for you, none of these goals will be realized. You not only risk failing to learn how to develop your critical thinking and writing skills, you also risk flailing on the final exam.

2. Do use ChatGPT for revising because ChatGPT is a powerful tool that can help you improve your writing.



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