A Philosopher’s Diary, #14–ChatGPT, High-Tech Plagiarism, and The Neoliberal University.
The descriptive sub-title of this blog — Against Professional Philosophy — originally created and rolled out in 2013, is “A Co-Authored Anarcho-Philosophical Diary.”
Now, ten years later, after more than 350,000 views of the site, this series, A Philosopher’s Diary, finally literally instantiates that description by featuring short monthly entries by one or another of the members of the APP circle, in order to create an ongoing collective philosophical diary that records the creative results of critical, synoptic, systematic rational reflection on any philosophical topic or topics under the sun, without any special restrictions as to content, format, or length.
In this fourteenth installment, Michelle Maiese moves the debate about ChatGPT and plagiarism into the larger context of a critique of neoliberal sociopolitics.
ChatGPT, High-Tech Plagiarism, and The Neoliberal University
In a recent guest blog post on Daily Nous, Dr. Matthew Noah Smith discusses ChatGPT, concerns about student cheating, and whether professors should be “high-tech plagiarism cops” (Smith, 2023). Smith notes that some professors are worried that that the average student will use ChatGPT as much as possible in place of doing the required work, and therefore won’t learn as much. The only solution, according to some, is to engage in aggressive policing of student essays or switch to in-class exams. According to Smith, these more stringent policing efforts don’t allow for professors and students to engage together in a collective project of learning. Instead, they put professors and students into conflict with each other and lead them to view each other as threats to what matters to them. As a result, the professor-student relationship is infused with resentment, which has the potential to turn into anger. What is more, a focus on cheating prevention is not the same thing as a focus on high-quality pedagogy. Good teachers stimulate student curiosity and create learning activities and assessments that help to spark interest and motivation. They structure their classes in ways that not only (i) accommodate stressed out students who have many responsibilities, but also (ii) produce desirable pedagogical outcomes. Furthermore, they build assessments that make cheating less likely.
According to Smith, excellent pedagogy is the only solution to the many structural factors pushing students to cheat. Individual professors have the greatest amount of power in the context of their own classrooms, where they can implement good pedagogical practices and assessments that will stimulate student learning. Since students have such demanding lives, many of them are making a “rational choice” to forego doing actual coursework. How are professors improving their already difficult lives by making them take a few high-stakes exams? Why not just adjust many of their other pedagogical practices so that they can better assist students with the exploration of ideas and texts?
The implicit message here is that if students use ChatGPT to cheat on an essay assignment, it’s possible that this is due to a failure, on the part of the professor, to use effective teaching tactics that generate engagement and wonder. Great pedagogy, Smith says, is the “only solution” to worries about student cheating. And when professors rely on surveillance or attempt to police students, this causes the teacher-student relationship to become infused with suspicion and resentment. Professors need to be better teachers rather than better cops.
Professor Smith raises several worthy points that I agree with wholeheartedly. Because high-stakes, timed exams cause many students a great deal of anxiety and aren’t always a very good indicator of what they’ve learned, it’s better to rely on other sorts of assessments. Pedagogical practices and assignments that spark students’ interest not only promote learning, but also are likely to reduce their motivation to cheat. But are students tempted to cheat simply because their professors are not engaging and have given them boring assignments? What is missing from Smith’s discussion, in my view, is a consideration of the powerful economic and sociostructural and forces that position professors and students, and shape how they relate to each other.
In The Mind-Body Politic, Robert Hanna and I discuss how neoliberal ideology has infiltrated colleges and universities and shaped how people understand the meaning and value of education (Maiese and Hanna, 2019: esp. ch. 4). Such ideology can be understood as an extension of classical 19th century laissez-faire capitalist economic theory and its emphasis on free market values and norms. Its central tenets are that the free market is benevolent, that government regulation of the market should be minimal, and that individual citizens are essentially self-interested, instrumentally rational economic agents. Neoliberal ideology advances a particular image of social reality in which market norms and values shape people’s sense of what is “normal” and what counts as optimal and “rational” modes of agency. Individuals begin to see everything they do in terms of maximizing their “human capital.” All aspects of their lives, including their relationships, their personal objectives, and everyday conduct, are “managed and evaluated on the basis of market demands” (Esposito & Perez, 2014: p. 420).
Colleges and universities become sites of “investment” where individual agents can gain new credentials and build their careers. According to the model of what Jane Jacobs aptly calls “educating as credentialing” (Jacobs, 2004: ch. 3), the primary function of contemporary higher education in neoliberal societies is to ensure that diploma-clutching graduates get relatively high-paying, high-status jobs. Majors and courses of study come to be viewed and valued largely in terms of their ability to contribute to this “return on investment.”
Students who view their education as a private consumer good, and who view their course work primarily as mere means to an end (to get a decent-paying job), may very well become deeply cynical about their college education or dissatisfied with the learning process. After all, it only delays their entrance into the world of work, where they can satisfy their economic interests and make money. Whereas students fifty years ago were more focused on developing a meaningful philosophy of life, students today are focused primarily on the extrinsic goal of being well-off financially (Saunders, 2010: p. 54). How likely is it, then, that they will regard their college experience as a special opportunity for intellectual engagement, exploration, and enhanced creativity? Meanwhile, among professors, there is increased focus on research publications and gaining all the extrinsic rewards of the trade: promotion, tenure, raises, merit pay, grants, and named professorial chairs. Many feel increasingly cynical, demoralized, over-worked, and underpaid.
Taking these forces into account allows us to see that when students do cheat, the problem is not simply that professors have done a poor job, nor that students are “slackers,” as Smith puts it. Instead, cheating arises in a social context in which people have been taught to adopt a highly instrumental, consumer-oriented approach to higher education. If someone sees their college experience fundamentally as a matter of “credentialing,” they are unlikely to appreciate the value of learning, questioning, and being intellectually curious. General education courses, in particular, are seen as something to check off their list as quickly as possible. Or, if a student needs to work 30 hours a week to afford tuition (so that they can get a degree that will get them a decent paying job), “cutting corners” may seem like a reasonable strategy for managing their very busy lives. Yet the reason why students are so overburdened has much to do with neoliberal trends: higher education has become a very expensive consumer good, and many students need to work full-time to be able to afford this good.
It’s worth highlighting that students also are operating in a context in which many universities across the country are eliminating their academic programs in the humanities. Philosophy departments often are among the first on the chopping block due to low numbers of majors. The widespread assumption that philosophy is a poor choice for a major is rooted in the assumption that studying philosophy does not provide good preparation for employment. Of course, the notion that philosophy is bad preparation for the world of work is completely mistaken. However, the deeper issue with this line of thinking is that it involves the wrong-headed assumption that attending university is valuable only (or at least, primarily) insofar as it provides a pathway to employment. And this is highly problematic, in my view, because it causes students to approach their education in a way that ends up alienating them from learning, from one another, and from their professors. In some cases, it even makes them feel resentful to the point of anger about the fact that they are in college. This alienation, resentment, and anger. in turn, jointly constitute a significant causal and normative influence that nudges students toward academic dishonesty. It makes it seem “rational” to use ChatGPT, another chatbot, or some other generative AI engine, in order to complete assignments for “pointless” general education classes, i.e., classes that appear to have nothing to do with their future jobs.
Meanwhile, in response to these same neoliberal pressures, it may seem all the more “rational” for professors to give high-stakes, timed in-class exams that are quick and easy for them (or their teaching assistants) to grade and don’t require them to give much in the way of feedback. As Smith notes, the development of new teaching and assessment techniques is hard work; and in response to the disengagement and resentment that professors sense on the part of some of their students, their motivation to engage students in collaborative learning may wane.
It’s absolutely true that some professors need to be better teachers, and that some students need to be more devoted to their learning. But in addition, we need to pay attention to the way in which higher education, teaching, learning, and the relationship between professors and students all are being corrupted by neoliberal trends. Students’ attitudes and behaviors, including the way that they engage with technology and make use of chatbots or other generative AI to complete coursework, are all shaped in destructive and deforming way by neoliberal ideas and neoliberal social institutions. These forces guide students, and also frequently their professors, toward a highly instrumentalist and consumerist view of education. More specifically, all-too-often professional academic philosophers simply accept these neoliberal influences as “givens” and offer individualistic solutions to foundational problems that can really be solved only by facing up to and grappling with deeper economic and structural issues. It’s true that these issues are much more difficult to address. We can’t simply snap our fingers and get rid of the corruptive influence that neoliberal ideas have had on higher education and the professional academy. However, we need to acknowledge what is really going on, rather than characterizing cheating as “rational,” as something that “slacker” students do, or as something that occurs primarily due to poor pedagogy.
In other words, the foundational problems in higher education and the professional academy that have become especially salient due to the recent “invasion of the mind-snatchers” (Hanna, 2023a) are not solvable by means of either more and fancier digital technology, more stringent policing, more excellent pedagogy, or indeed by any means whatsoever that presupposes and sustains Neoliberal U. On the contrary, only radically re-thinking the very idea of higher education and radically re-structuring the social institution of the professional academy itself can lead us toward an effective solution for these foundational problems (Hanna, 2023a, 2023b, 2023c). Any purported solution that is less radical than these, sadly and indeed tragically, will merely be equivalent to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
(Esposito & Perez, 2014). Esposito, L. and Perez, F. “Neoliberalism and the Commodification of Mental Health.” Humanity and Society 38, 4: 414–422.
(Hanna, 2023a). Hanna, R. “Invasion of the Mind Snatchers, Or, The Easy Solution to the Problem of Chatbots in Higher Education.” Against Professional Philosophy. 18 June. Available online at URL = <https://againstprofphil.org/2023/06/18/invasion-of-the-mind-snatchers-or-the-easy-solution-to-the-problem-of-chatbots-in-higher-education/>, and also in preview HERE.
(Hanna, 2023b). Hanna, R. “Further Thoughts on The Myth of Artificial Intelligence, the Mind Snatching Invasion of the Chatbots, and How to Save Higher Education.” Unpublished MS. Available online HERE.
(Hanna, 2023c). “Higher Education Without Commodification, Mechanization, or Moralization.” Unpublished MS. Available online HERE.
(Jacobs, 2004). Jacobs, J. Dark Age Ahead. New York: Vintage Books.
(Plagiarism Expert, 2023). Joseph. “How to Beat Plagiarism in ChatGPT Essays.” Plagiarism Expert. Available online at URL = <https://www.plagexpert.com/how-to-beat-plagiarism-in-chatgpt-essays/>.
(Saunders, 2010). Saunders, D. “Neoliberal Ideology and Public Higher Education in the United States.” Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies 8: 42–77.
(Smith, 2023). Smith, M.N. “Policing Is Not Pedagogy: On the Supposed Threat of ChatGPT.” Daily Nous. 3 August. Available online at URL = <https://dailynous.com/2023/08/03/policing-is-not-pedagogy-on-the-supposed-threat-of-chatgpt-guest-post/>.
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