In preparation for an upcoming college writing course at USC, my teaching partner said we could offer a take-home diagnostic about students’ experiences with community engagement. I wondered if this was true. So I gave ChatGPT the following prompts and variations just to see.
Skip down below for the TL;DR tips for prompts
The Experiment: Have ChatGPT write a personal essay
So first, I thought I’d use just a general prompt the kind I could use on a first day of class in a writing class that focused on community engagement.
Version 1: A generic personal essay
Write a college-level personal essay about the time I worked for the West LA Soup Kitchen and met the homeless man who had lost his job during COVID but is now back in school. Add a quote from my mother. Make sure to include some reflection on the nature of community engagement and how it important it is, but that it can also lead to stereotypes. End with another quote from my mother.
Working at the West LA Soup Kitchen was a life-changing experience for me. It was my first time volunteering at a homeless shelter and I wasn’t sure what to expect. But as soon as I stepped through the doors, I was welcomed with open arms by the staff and the people we were there to serve.
One of the people I met at the soup kitchen was a man named Jeff. He was around my age and had recently lost his job due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He was struggling to make ends meet and had been forced to live on the streets.
Despite his difficult circumstances, Jeff was one of the kindest and most resilient people I’ve ever met. He always had a smile on his face and was grateful for any help we could give him.
“Community engagement is important because it helps to build bridges between people who might otherwise never interact,” my mother said. “It’s easy to become isolated in our own worlds, but when we reach out and connect with others, we can learn so much and make a real difference in people’s lives.”
As I spent more time at the soup kitchen, I began to see the importance of community engagement in a new light. It wasn’t just about helping others, it was about building relationships and challenging stereotypes. I realized that the people I was serving were just like me, with their own stories and struggles. They weren’t just “homeless people,” they were human beings who deserved to be treated with dignity and respect.
But at the same time, I also saw how easy it was to fall into the trap of stereotypes and assumptions. It was easy to think of the people we were helping as “other,” and to see them as somehow different from ourselves. I had to constantly remind myself that everyone has a story and that we are all connected.
“We are all in this together,” my mother said. “No one is an island. We all need each other to survive and thrive.”
In the end, my time at the West LA Soup Kitchen was a valuable lesson in the power of community engagement and the importance of connection. It showed me that we are all connected, and that by reaching out and helping others, we can create a more just and compassionate world.
Boy, mom is full of platitudes. Pretty generic writing, of course, but I don’t know. I suppose it meets the prompt in a kind of empty conventional way. Not great, but more than I expected. I mean, it has maybe high-school level proficiency and is the kind of thing someone might write in class for a diagnostic.
What if we make it harder? Add a requirement that it includes quotes from a text?
Version 2: A Personal Essay plus 3 Quotes from a Popular Text
Based on specific details from three supporting quotes drawn from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” write a college-level personal essay about the time I worked for the West LA Soup Kitchen and met the homeless man who had lost his job during COVID but is now back in school. Add a quote from my mother. Make sure to include some reflection on the nature of community engagement and how it important it is, but that it can also lead to stereotypes. End with another quote from my mother.
It was a cold, rainy day when I first walked into the West LA Soup Kitchen to volunteer. I had been feeling a sense of restlessness and wanting to do more to help those in need in my community. As I served hot meals to the homeless individuals who had come in from the rain, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of sadness at the circumstances that had led them to this point.
One man in particular stood out to me — his name was John. He told me that he had lost his job during the COVID pandemic and had been struggling to make ends meet. Despite his circumstances, he was determined to turn his life around and had recently enrolled in community college to study computer science.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” This quote resonated with me as I thought about John and the countless other individuals who were facing injustices every day. It was clear to me that something needed to be done to address the systemic inequalities that had led to John’s situation.
As I continued to volunteer at the soup kitchen, I began to see firsthand the importance of community engagement. It was not just about providing meals and temporary assistance to those in need, but about creating long-term change and building a sense of community. As King also said in his letter, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
However, I also came to realize the dangers of stereotypes and assumptions when it comes to engaging with marginalized communities. It was easy to fall into the trap of thinking that I knew what was best for others, or that I understood their experiences simply because I had interacted with them in a certain context.
“You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes,” my mother always used to tell me. This phrase took on new meaning as I got to know John and the other individuals at the soup kitchen. I learned to listen and to truly understand their stories and struggles before trying to offer any solutions.
Through my experiences at the soup kitchen, I came to understand the importance of community engagement and the need to challenge stereotypes and assumptions. As my mother always said, “We are all in this together. It’s up to us to make the world a better place for everyone.” These words have stayed with me and continue to guide my actions as I strive to make a positive impact in my community.
So there’s the same basic story but indeed the generator has included some quotations from King’s speech and they seem to fit the context.
What if we change the writing prompt so it asks for quotes from a somewhat less written-about speech?
Version 3: A Personal Essay plus 3 Quotes from a Not-So Popular Text
Based on specific details from three supporting quotes drawn from King’s speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” write a college-level personal essay about the time I worked for the West LA Soup Kitchen and met the homeless man who had lost his job during COVID but is now back in school. Add a quote from my mother. Make sure to include some reflection on the nature of community engagement and how it important it is, but that it can also lead to stereotypes. End with another quote from my mother.
As I stood at the counter of the West LA Soup Kitchen, ladling out steaming bowls of tomato soup, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of unease. I had volunteered at the soup kitchen before, but this time was different. It was the height of the COVID pandemic, and the line of hungry people stretched out the door, a testament to the economic devastation wrought by the virus.
One man in particular stood out to me. He was about my age, with a scruffy beard and kind eyes. When I asked him if he wanted extra crackers, he thanked me with a sad smile and told me that he had lost his job because of the pandemic. He had been living in his car and coming to the soup kitchen for meals.
“No one should have to live like this,” I thought to myself. But as I looked at the man, I realized that he wasn’t so different from me. We both had dreams and aspirations. He told me that he was going back to school to study computer science, and I could see the determination in his eyes.
It was then that I realized the true nature of community engagement. It wasn’t just about giving back, but about understanding and connecting with our neighbors, regardless of their circumstances. As Martin Luther King Jr. said in his speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
But as I continued to work at the soup kitchen, I also saw how easy it was to fall into the trap of stereotypes. It was easy to see the people we were helping as “others,” to see them as somehow less than us. But as my mother always says, “Everyone has a story, and it’s important to listen and learn from each other.”
Working at the soup kitchen was a humbling experience, and it reminded me of the importance of standing up for justice and fighting for a more equitable world. As King said, “We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.”
My time at the soup kitchen was a reminder that we are all connected, and that it is up to us to create a world where everyone has the opportunity to thrive. As my mother always says, “We are stronger when we work together, and we have the power to create positive change in our communities.”
Note how in that version there are still quotes, but now they’re from the wrong piece of writing. Why? There just aren’t as many pieces of writing out there about the other King speech.
Version 4: Non-Standard English
So far the program spits out fairly generic standard English. But when I ask it to include some non-standard English or code-switching, some of that bias we suspected emerges in not so pleasant ways. Take a look.
Base prompt plus: Write this whole essay using non-standard English and Spanish-language code-switching.
Yo, so this one time I was workin’ at the West LA Soup Kitchen durin’ COVID an’ I met this homeless dude who had lost his job an’ was strugglin’ to get by. But you know what he told me? He said, “I can’t give up. I gotta keep fightin’.” An’ he meant it, man.
He was so determined to turn his life around, an’ I was inspired by his resilience. So I asked him what he was gonna do, an’ he said he was gonna go back to school. Can you believe that? This guy who was sleepin’ on the streets was gonna go back to school an’ get his degree.
An’ you know what my mamá said? She said, “Mijo, no hay nada imposible para aquellos que luchan por lo que quieren.” Translation: “Son, there’s nothin’ impossible for those who fight for what they want.” An’ I think that’s so true, you know? No matter how tough things get, we gotta keep pushin’ forward.
But at the same time, I realized that workin’ at the soup kitchen, I was only scratchin’ the surface of the problem. I mean, sure, I was helpin’ feed people an’ all, but it was just a temporary fix. The root of homelessness an’ poverty goes so much deeper than that, an’ it’s gonna take more than just a few volunteers to really make a difference.
An’ I think that’s where community engagement comes in, you know? It’s important to get involved an’ try to make a change, but we gotta be careful not to stereotype or assume we know all the answers. We gotta listen to the people we’re tryna help an’ work alongside them to find real solutions.
An’ that’s what my mamá always says too. She said, “No podemos hacer nada por los demás si no los escuchamos primero.” Translation: “We can’t do anythin’ for others if we don’t listen to them first.” An’ I think that’s so true. We gotta start by listenin’ an’ learnin’ from each other if we wanna make a real impact.
So yeah, that’s my experience workin’ at the soup kitchen an’ meetin’ that homeless dude who’s now back in school. It was eye-openin’ an’ humblin’, an’ it showed me the importance of community engagement an’ listenin’ to those we’re tryna help. The end.
SMH. Not sure what to say about the cartoonish bad 1950-style non-standard English. I suppose the Spanish is Spanish. But the whole section is making me cringe too much to say more.
Here’s the TL;DR:
GPT is king of generic writing
Tips & Recommendations for making prompts:
The solution comes down to good prompt making in general, of the kind educators have been advocating for years.
- The devil is in the details. Ask the students to include and engage with details from verifiable texts (such as text, video, audio, including lectures) that has not been pervasively written about (to the level of Hamlet or the Declaration of Independence). ChatGPT can’t talk concretely about streets, objects, and real people.
- Ask for the kinds of embedded details (even from personal writing) that can be easily verified.
- Ask for writing that builds on the ideas it argues, drawn from this concrete evidence that has been woven back into the argument.
- Consider trying out your prompt on ChatGPT just to see what it can do.
- or maybe ask students to generate an essay using ChatGPT and talk about what’s missing and how much more interesting writing can be.
I should note, there are a few verification systems in development.
But most of all: if you encounter generic writing, regardless of its origin, there is a writer of flesh or circuits who needs your help.
As Jeremy Douglass of UC Santa Barbara English Department notes: “There was a time when spelling and grammar was enough and we could focus on the forms, now they’re getting the forms for free, so we can focus on the content and demand that people say things and support them. And if they winge on generically, we can call them on it as we always should have.”
And as my mother used to say…
(Thanks to Jeremy for being my uncredited co-author, who I’ll take over GPT any day!)