The benefits of vexing students in class as a strategy to improve their interaction with ChatGPT

I’m that annoying professor you had in college. I assign too much reading. I have unclear requirements. I go on long tangents. My students tell me this every year, and they have every reason to complain. They have busy lives – or, rather, their lives have been made busy. I’m sympathetic to the tension this causes, but there is a method to my madness. I want to disorganise them. Students do not want to be disorganised. They want clarity. I don’t blame them for wanting this level of certitude. Nor do I blame administrators for wanting to provide this to students. We live in a world of instrumentality, which is why we have rubrics, assessment officers and accreditation agencies. What good is it for students to “problematise the world”? They will have to thrive in this problematic world, and pay the rent in this society, not “the imagined one”.

Universities are under pressure to justify the tuition fees they charge. They do this by promising a career, and the most popular majors have a direct line to a job. Schools are rushing to create data science programmes. Understanding how to “wrangle data” will get graduates a job. It will make their lives comprehensible. But life is becoming increasingly incomprehensible. To prepare young people, you need to disorganise them.

What do I mean by disorganise? I borrow this term from the writer and critic Marco Roth, who recounted his time at Columbia University in the classes of the French cultural theorist Sylvère Lotringer in a 2021 N+1 magazine profile. “He’d come into the classroom of about five to 10 students, depending on the day, and begin thinking aloud about literature, art, and philosophy – in French or occasionally heavily accented English – in a way that I only understood at some point during my second or third Sylvère semester,” recalls Roth. This was intended to “disorganise” students, he posits. “If we asked him to explain ‘structuralism,’ he might lecture on Saussure and Barthes for a while, but then go off into Nietzsche, the schizophrenic writings of Judge Daniel Paul Schreber, and onto Deleuze, thus making clear the limitations of any rage for ordering things,” reflects Roth.

I do this in my classes, in my own solipsistic way, as a pop culture-saturated, first-generation Cuban-American who grew up in 1980s/1990s Miami. If students are losing the thread of a discussion of the ascriptive tradition in American political culture, I might start speaking Spanish or recounting the plot of derivative ’80s movies (explaining the plot of The Karate Kid is my favourite) or begin to indulge my hip-hop enthusiast side and wonder out loud which Wu-Tang Clan member had the best solo career. I want to reset their brains. I want to vex them. But I don’t want to ask them at the end of the term, “On a scale of 1 to 5, how thoroughly were you vexed by the class materials?” I don’t want to vex them for the sadistic enjoyment of seeing confused looks on 18-year-olds’ faces. I employ “strategic vexing” to shake students out of their “habitus”, the term coined by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to describe the unspoken norms and assumptions of a social environment.

Too often, students get the message that the main objective of a university education is to “gain knowledge”, the effectiveness of which is evidenced by getting As through the process of taking down every word a professor says and parroting those same words back in the exam. This view of college can make learning an instrumental, mechanical process. There are many ways of breaking this process up (project-based learning, group dyads and so on), but these approaches do not challenge the underlying assumption that the university is primarily about gaining knowledge and not about critically interrogating the knowledge that is being gained. That can be achieved only through disorganising.

I doubt that Lotringer used a rubric or spent much time assessing how well he disorganised his students. His pedagogical style would be described as “low-impact learning” in the modern university, but, to Roth at least, it was worthwhile: Lotringer “attracted and maintained an aura of possibility, and this allowed me to begin to be myself in a way that I’d never imagined I could be. He didn’t care if I was his best student that year, or if I went to graduate school”. He offered an “education in indiscipline, or liberation, which, if taken seriously, also became a kind of discipline”.

I can hear the likes of Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom in my head (along with my fiercely anti-communist grandfather) saying, “This is exactly what students don’t need. They need to be taught how to discern. They don’t need to indulgently travel into their own egos. They need the Great Books. How can they appreciate what should be appreciated if we don’t instruct them how to appreciate? Besides, students pay good money to learn skills. Being ‘disorganised’ is not a subheading on a résumé.” I’m more sympathetic to this view than I like to admit. I know that my desire to disrupt is partly the result of a lack of dopamine. My ADHD brain wants to complicate. I gravitate towards a sense of novelty and play in the classroom. I want to be all bebop jazz. But I have a more pressing reason to insist on a disorganised classroom.

Artificial intelligence is changing society at an unprecedented speed. To survive, we in the classroom need to rethink how we teach. Our students need to become comfortable with ambiguity and unleash their creative, critical and adventuresome selves if they want to thrive in the coming age. ChatGPT can do much of what our students do. It can write an essay. It can organise a set of ideas. It can graduate with a 3.0 GPA and then pass the Bar exam. It can do a great deal of the mundane work that is the bread and butter of much of the modern white-collar workforce. It can fill out forms, clean data and create presentations, slide decks and marketing materials; it can write prospectuses and annual reports. ChatGPT-4 can do all this and combine it with images and audio. Put simply, it can do a lot of what used to count as an entry-level job for university graduates.

To compete and thrive, not only do you need to be analytical, you also need to be creative. We’re quickly entering a world where writing well is less valuable than asking good questions, but most of our assignments are still of the essay-writing variety. The emerging field of “prompt engineering” (that is, how can you get an AI to give you what you are looking for?) is shifting employer focus to “can you think creatively?”. But to ask good questions, you need to be disorganised. You need to think about how things could be different. Today’s large language models are trained on deep learning algorithms. In these models, neural networks take trillions of pieces of text and billions of parameters and from them assemble a string of words, images or sounds that appears strikingly like human content. ChatGPT also has a randomisation element, so the algorithm doesn’t always pick the highest probability word. This combination of the volume of training data, the nature of neural networks and the randomisation features…

**Editor Notes: Disorganising Education in an AI-Powered World**

The role of education in shaping the minds of young individuals is evolving rapidly due to the advancements in artificial intelligence (AI). As an educator, I have witnessed the need to prepare students for an uncertain future by embracing the concept of disorganisation in the classroom. While traditional education focuses on acquiring knowledge and regurgitating information, AI-powered tools like ChatGPT can easily perform these tasks. In order to thrive in the age of AI, students must learn to be comfortable with ambiguity, think critically, and unleash their creativity.

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