AI and the English Major

Three Colby professors on why the study of English is more relevant in the face of new technology

Katherine Stubbs, associate professor of English and chair of the English Department, believes that even though artificial intelligence can generate writing, it's up to human intelligence to determine writing's true value.
By Kayla Voigt '14Photography by Michael G. Seamans
December 5, 2023

Did you “google” something today while wearing “athleisure”? Maybe you felt “FOMO” after being “ghosted” by someone. That would be a little “sus,” at least according to “Gen-Z.” 

Those are just a few examples of terms someone 20 years ago wouldn’t recognize. Just last year Merriam-Webster added 370 words to its online dictionary while the Oxford English Dictionary added a whopping 700. As society changes, so does our language to describe it.

There’s a new term floating around the Internet that you might not have heard before a few months ago: Generative AI. Bots like OpenAI’s ChatGPT exploded onto the scene in November 2022. Since then, The Atlantic predicted the end of the college essay. For Vox, it’s the cover letter. And The New Yorker proclaimed the “death of the English major.”

Technology like AI changes what the English language—and the study of it—looks like. But death? Not quite. While peer institutions report dwindling numbers of humanities degrees, the English major remains a popular department at Colby, with 105 majors enrolled this year, along with 31 minors.

Why studying English is more important than ever 

On the surface, the situation for English majors might appear to be dire. If computers can write (and write well enough that few can tell the difference), what’s the point? But dig a little deeper, and the English major becomes more valuable, not less.

English majors double down on what AI can’t do: Be human.

“Writing moves us. Deeply, emotionally, intellectually. It answers the question, ‘Who am I?’” said Katherine Stubbs, associate professor of English and department chair. “AI can generate writing, but it’s the role of human intelligence to determine the true value of that writing. Literary study encourages not only critical analysis but also the use of the imagination, and it is our imagination that will help us to invent new solutions to urgent social problems.”

As AI-generated writing becomes more ubiquitous, writing effectively becomes even more important. “I can easily tell the difference,” said Adrian Blevins, professor of English. “It’s all about voice.”

“The more the boundaries between human and AI feel blurry, the more important it will be to have somebody who’s been educated with a kind of sophisticated sense of the full range of creative possibilities of the human mind,” agreed Associate Professor of English and Science, Technology, and Society Aaron Hanlon. “When a new technology comes out, you can respond with doom and gloom, or optimism at what it can do. I think with AI, the type of work we do in the major only becomes more important, not less.”

For professor of English Adrian Blevins, there’s no contest. “The idea that the English major isn’t valuable or that it won’t get you a job is completely wrong,” she said. “The English major teaches us what it means to be human. I liken it to dreaming. There’s so much we don’t know about dreaming, but we do know that storytelling and narrative are central to human psychology.”

On writing in the age of AI 

As AI-generated writing becomes more ubiquitous, writing effectively becomes even more important. “I can easily tell the difference,” said Blevins. “It’s all about voice. I want to teach my students how to write with a voice so that they can say, ‘No one else but me wrote this.’ When you think about great literature, no one can really replicate it. Only Faulkner or Morrison or Hemingway could have done it.”

Asking ChatGPT to replicate certain writers turns out prose that on the surface seems legitimate, but there’s something laughably off.

Write a sentence about Colby College in the style of William Faulkner:

Amidst the rolling hills of Maine, there stands a venerable institution of learning, where the ivy-covered walls of Colby College bear witness to the passing of time and the unrelenting march of progress. 

Write a sentence about Colby College in the style of Toni Morrison:

In the heart of Maine, where the winds howl and the snow falls, there is a place of knowledge and discovery, where Colby College stands as a beacon of hope and possibility for all those who seek to unlock the secrets of the world.

Write a sentence about Colby College in the style of Ernest Hemingway:

Colby College, nestled in the rugged terrain of Maine, stood tall and proud like a sturdy oak, its students and faculty embodying the indomitable spirit of the American frontier.

Take a second look and you’ll see these sentences barely make sense, let alone capture the essence of the great writers AI claims to mimic. “Great writers mix different levels of diction, combining them in a way that sounds the way people talk,” said Blevins. “Sometimes it’s semi-ungrammatical, but it can create beautiful little sentences. AI can’t do that.”

At least, not yet.

That’s why generating and critiquing AI prompts is an example of a new assignment you’ll see in one of Hanlon’s classes. “My students are required to generate an essay using ChatGPT and write a critical report assessing historical accuracy, clarity, and logic,” he said. “Through this assignment, I want them to sort through what it can and what it can’t do.”

The makings of a modern English major

Like the English language, the study of English constantly changes. “We use a capacious definition of the word literature,” said Stubbs. “We teach literature from the Middle Ages to the present, from the literary canon, and from historically marginalized peoples. We’re reading Shakespeare, and we’re also reading texts from early African-American print culture, for example.”

In addition to a more traditional concentration in creative writing, Colby students can address issues of climate change by concentrating in environmental literature. It’s also becoming more common for students to add English to balance out a major in computer science, biology, or environmental science. Said Hanlon, “Students want to get grounded in the literature to apply that knowledge in other areas. We see a lot of overlap.”

In some classes, students are required to generate an essay using ChatGPT and write a critical report assessing historical accuracy, clarity, and logic.

We’re not close to robot overlords just yet. But as AI technology develops, the English Department is ready to help students think critically. “When we study literature, we come to understand the structures and systems that shape how we make and communicate meaning in the world and how we interpret the meanings in circulation on the screens and pages around us,” said Stubbs. “It is this faculty for analysis that will enable students to engage in the world, to effect urgent change through critical awareness of language and its power.”

A few great sentences

Generative AI may be able to ace the LSATs or write a passable cover letter, but there’s still something human about writing well it just can’t replicate. Writers often keep files of turns of phrase that move them. Here are some from Blevins’s swipe file that computers can’t come up with (yet):

“I was getting along fine with Mama, Papa-Daddy and Uncle Rondo until my sister Stella-Rondo just separated from her husband and came back home again.”

—Eudora Welty  

“From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that—a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes filled with dust motes which Quentin thought of as being of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.”

—William Faulkner

As AI technology develops, the English Department is ready to help students think critically.

“I had never before been so aware of policemen, on foot, on horseback, on corners, everywhere, always two by two. Nor had I ever been so aware of small knots of people. They were on stoops and on corners and in doorways, and what was striking about them, I think, was that they did not seem to be talking. Never, when I passed these groups, did the usual sound of a curse or a laugh ring out and neither did there seem to be any hum of gossip.”

—James Baldwin

“When she loses at mah-jongg she takes it like a sport, not-like-the-others-whose-names-she-could-mention-but-she-won’t-not-even-Tilly- Hochman’s-it’s-too-petty-to-even-talk-about-let’s-just-forget-she-even-brought-it-up.”

—Philip Roth

“There isn’t any story.  It’s not the story. It’s just this breathtaking world—that’s the point. The story’s not important; what’s important is the way the world looks. That’s what makes you feel stuff. That’s what puts you there.”

—David Shields