Writing is a technology that restructures thought — and in an AI age, universities need to teach it more


In an age of AI-assisted writing, is it important for university students to learn how to write?

We believe it is now more than ever.

In the writing classroom, students get the time and help they need to understand writing as not only a skill, but what the language scholar Walter J. Ong called a “technology that restructures thought.”

“Technology” is not simply iPhones or spreadsheets — it is about mediating our relationship with the world through the creation of tools, and writing itself is arguably the most important tool for thinking that university students need to master.

Perhaps not surprisingly, not everyone agrees.

Role of university writing courses

“Eliminate the Required First-Year Writing Course”  was the headline of a provocative article published in Inside Higher Ed in November.

In this article, a professor of writing studies, Melissa Nicolas of Washington State University, writes that while she has seen reason to question how efficient first-year composition courses are before now, “the advent of generative artificial intelligence is the final nail in the coffin.”

In her estimation, “learning to write and writing to learn are two distinct things.” First-year writing courses are “largely about learning to write, but AI can now do this for us. Writing to learn is much more complicated and is something that can only be done by the human mind.”

We take issue with this distinction. From the perspective of human learning and development, the grammatically correct prose produced by generative AI like ChatGPT is not “good writing” — even if it is or seems factually correct — if it does not reflect intellectual engagement with its subject matter. This is not to mention serious questions about the meaning of gaining insight from digital data, issues surrounding data biases, and so on.

First-year composition and other writing courses are a crucial part of the way university students are socialized into ways of communicating that will benefit them far beyond their undergraduate years.

Canadian versus American universities

We propose another solution to the problem Nicolas raises of first-year composition courses being formulaic and outdated. Universities need to devote resources to expanding and improving writing programs, including first-year composition.

We especially need this in Canada, where, as doctoral research carried out by one of the authors of this piece (Taylor Morphett) has shown, first-year composition has traditionally been under-emphasized, and writing has only been taught in a piecemeal way.

When first-year composition courses began to develop at the end of the 19th century in the United States, in Canada the focus was on the fine-tuning of literary taste and the reading of canonical British literature.

The philosophies of education and approaches to teaching that developed from this early time are still present today in Canada. Writing education is often seen by universities as a remedial skill, something students should already know how to do.

In reality, much more writing instruction is needed. Today’s undergraduates are plunged into a sea of texts, information and technology they have immense difficulty navigating, and ChatGPT has made it harder, not easier, for students to discern the credibility of sources.

Writing programs in Canada

In writing courses, students can begin to see the critical variety and power of one of our best technologies: the human act of writing, a system of finite resources but infinite combinations. They learn to think, synthesize, judge the credibility of sources and information and interact with an audience — none of which can be done by AI.

Thankfully, some universities have taken the lead in making writing a cornerstone of undergraduate education. For example, the University of Victoria has a robust academic writing requirement for all students, regardless of their field of study. At the University of Toronto Mississauga, first-year students take an innovative for-credit writing course that takes a “writing-about-writing” approach. In this program, undergraduates study writing as an academic subject itself, not just a skill. They learn about the importance, complexity and socially situated nature of academic writing.

Needed at all universities

All Canadian universities should make a beginning academic writing or communication course required for all undergraduates, along with discipline-specific upper-division writing courses focused on scholarly and professional genres in their fields.

Academic and professional writing is a second language for everyone: no one is born knowing how to properly cite sources or craft airtight business proposals.

We need dedicated writing programs to help students understand and communicate complex concepts to a specific audience for a specific purpose in rhetorically flexible ways, with an awareness of their responsibilities to a human community of readers.

Skills and knowledge to make a difference

Generative AI like ChatGPT cannot do this, because it cannot know or “understand” anything. Its raison d’être is to produce plausible strings of symbols in response to human prompts, based on data it has been trained upon.

We have knowledgeable and talented PhDs graduating in communication, applied linguistics, English, rhetoric and related fields whose expertise in these areas is sorely needed at institutions across the country.

If Canada wants to graduate domestic and international students with the skills and knowledge to make a difference in the world, we need to be training them in writing.

Author Bios: Joel Heng Hartse is a Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University and Taylor Morphett is an Instructor, English at Kwantlen Polytechnic University