February 2023

Writing robot

Yesterday at a Babson Writing Program meeting, my colleagues and I had an engaging conversation about AI-generated writing in the college classroom: an ongoing discussion we’ve had since ChatGPT has dominated headlines.

At this meeting, a colleague shared a news item about a ChatGPT-generated email that Vanderbilt University sent in response to the mass shooting at Michigan State. I wasn’t surprised that a university administrator had sent a bot-generated email that included a tag marking the text as AI-generated: I’ve always suspected administrative responses to tragedy are more canned than sincere. Instead, what struck me about this story was how perfectly the bot nailed administrative condolence-speak. The email wasn’t convincing because the bot sounded human; the email was convincing because this sort of communication always sounds robotic.

After yesterday’s conversation, I spent some time playing with ChatGPT. Inspired by the assignment my Research Writing students are currently working on, I asked the bot to generate a discourse community analysis of the Brookline Bird Club, an example of a discourse community I’ve mentioned in class.

It was thrilling and a bit frightening to see the words quickly appear on the screen: the bot types much faster than I do, and without pauses to think and sip tea. But while the bot accurately described what the Brookline Bird Club is and how it fits the general parameters of a discourse community–namely, a group of people with a shared goal or interest who use a shared lingo to communicate–the “analysis” the bot generated was exactly the kind of bland, obvious generalizing I don’t want my students to produce.

Yes, I already know the BBC is a discourse community: that’s why I suggested it as a topic. What I want to hear from an analysis, then, is how well does the BBC use specific examples of discourse to create community and further group goals?

That, of course, is a thinking-style question, so exactly the kind of thing a bot isn’t good at. What I want my human students to do in their writing isn’t simply to churn out text: the bots are already better than us at that task. Instead, I want students to do the things that robots can’t do: namely, think deeply and critically.

In a discourse community analysis, I don’t want students to repeat the same bland platitudes about how groups bring like-minded people together. Instead, I want students to look closely at specific examples of discourse to determine how well those texts work.

Do these texts bring community members closer together? Do they encourage lively discussion–a true sharing of ideas–or do they stymie or even quash communication? Do these texts encourage healthy dialogue among all members or only between a few? In a word, do the utterances produced by this community encourage actual human interaction–the kind of communication we all crave–or do they serve to turn us all into robots: mere cogs in the discourse machine?

When they work, discourse communities (like lively meetings with colleagues) make us feel more human, not less. ChatGPT might be good enough to write an insipid analysis or canned-sounding condolence, but it isn’t smart enough (yet) to know whether it is wise to click “Submit.”

From the earth to the moon

Yesterday in one of my Comp I classes, while we were discussing the range of styles employed in textual analysis, I mentioned the process of writing my PhD dissertation. I explained how I wrote the first eight chapters in standard academese–what I thought my committee wanted–but when I reached the conclusion, I wrote in a more personal voice. When I sent that last chapter to my committee, my chair remarked, “Why didn’t you write the whole thing in this style?”

Spurred by that memory, I went back and re-read “The Upshot,” the conclusion to my dissertation, a project that took ten agonizing years to write. Immediately, I could see why my chair loved it: why I, all these years later, still love it. That final chapter has presence and personality, a voice on the page leading readers through an intellectual landscape of places and texts I love.

I felt sad to read it: sad because the young scholar who worked so long to arrive at a place where she could finally cast off the expectations of academic discourse to tell her story had bright hopes of a tenured career that would enable her to write and teach and travel. Instead, life’s necessities led that young scholar to a dead-end where she-turned-I spend much more time and So Much Labor on students’ writing than my own.

I think again, as I often do, of Thoreau’s own definition of middle age: a young man gathers materials to build a bridge to the Moon, and in middle age he uses those materials to build a woodshed.

Part of me thinks, well, at least I have a woodshed. Adjuncting is a comfortable enough life if you’re good at juggling, and even as contingent faculty patching together a living from part-time positions, I’ve exceeded expectations, “secretary” and “checkout girl” being the two careers my Mom suggested for me when I was younger. Secretaries, she said, get to sit down and wear nice clothes while they work, and checkout girls get a discount on their groceries. And while I mostly stand and pace when I teach, I get to wear pretty dresses, and although I don’t get any discounts on my groceries, at least I can afford them.

But still, I more than occasionally consider the road not taken. The academy and (more commonly) the world beyond academe are full of would-be professors: brilliant teachers, impassioned researchers, and lively writers who dreamed of Something More and had to settle for Something Less. My notebooks and blog serve as my creative outlets, just as Thoreau’s journal served as his. But still, I can’t forget I once had hopes for the Moon.


Roxy and I are back from our morning walk, and I just finished my weekly goals review, where I look back on the previous week and record which of my perennial goals I met and which I didn’t. (I’m doing well blogging and writing postcards; I’m lagging when it comes to reading books and getting 17,000 steps a day.)

I do this every Monday: this semester, I review my weekly goals in the morning before heading to Babson to teach my afternoon-into-evening classes. Today, because of the Presidents’ Day holiday, I’m not teaching on campus, so I’ll take Roxy on a second afternoon walk, play with Djaro in the dog-pen, prepare tomorrow’s classes, and grade papers.

For me, there isn’t much difference, work-wise, between a Monday holiday and a typical teaching day: the main difference is where I’m working and how many things I’m juggling while doing it.

Young reader with scarf

Today is sunny and cold, the inverse of yesterday, which was warm but gray. I check the weather app on my phone every morning to determine what coat I should wear when I walk Roxy, and sometimes the coat I wear in the morning is not the coat I wear in the afternoon.

Last night I dreamed about coats: or at least, one coat. J and I were going to an outdoor sports event–something major like the Super Bowl, but not the Super Bowl–with a nameless group of friends? Extended family? The specifics are fuzzy, but we were car-pooling to the game with this group, so we had to coordinate getting everyone ready.

For some reason, we had to dress up for this unspecified event, and someone had bought me a stylish long tweed coat: the kind of coat a fifties starlet would wear in a movie while tearfully saying goodbye to her secret lover at a train station.

The coat was pale brown, and it was determined by our faceless friends that the cream-colored infinity scarf my personal shopper had chosen to go with the coat definitely did not, so I was rummaging through closets trying to find either of two crushed chenille scarves I used to own–one olive green, the other chestnut brown–in the hope one of them would be a better choice.

After much delay in which I couldn’t find said scarves, we determined online that a store in a nearby mall had a wide selection of scarves, so we tried to gather our entourage–which by now had wandered off, bundling on then off again their own outfits and accouterments–into our carpool convoy. I have no idea if we made it to the game on time.


Already we’re halfway through February, which feels miraculous given how the month normally drags. It’s been a gray day with intermittent drizzle, but no snow. Pitchers and catchers have reported to Spring Training, daffodil shoots are emerging in a neighbor’s garden, and the first snowdrops and crocuses of the year are already blooming from the bare ground.

This morning when I escorted Roxy to the dog-pen before her morning walk, we startled a nuthatch, downy woodpecker, and several chickadees. The neighborhood titmice and a lone Carolina wren were singing, and the scene felt like something out of Snow White, with birds fluttering and frolicking.

It almost feels like we don’t deserve the encouragement of an impending Spring given we haven’t had much of a winter. I tell myself that next year will make up for it, or next month.

Privet berries

Earlier this semester, a teaching colleague, M, asked me how I’ve managed to teach five classes a semester for what seems like forever. (Apart from the two years I was under contract as a “full-time temporary” assistant professor at Framingham State, I’ve always moonlighted, stitching together a crazy quilt career by teaching part-time at multiple colleges.) When M taught at two colleges a year or so ago, it nearly crushed her soul, so she wanted to know how I continue to do it without having a complete mental breakdown.

The short answer, of course, is that I’m good at having breakdowns quietly and on my own time: just because someone is keeping their shit together on the outside doesn’t mean they aren’t stressing like a motherfucker on the inside. Instead of saying that in so many words, however, I shared some benign banalities about being organized and setting boundaries and not giving a part-time job more free labor than it merits: the usual blah blah blah.

But the full answer to M’s question is more complicated. How can I teach five courses at two colleges semester after semester without burning out entirely? Well, I think I’m able to do this now because of what I used to do back then, back in the 1990s when I lived in a Zen Center and regularly sat long meditation retreats.

I haven’t sat a long retreat in years, but every day I use the insights gleaned during countless weekend and week-long silent retreats, and that is this: you can survive pretty much anything if you take it not just day by day, but hour by hour and even moment by moment.

I’ve always said that sitting a Zen retreat is like going to an automated drive-thru car wash. You show up, put your car in neutral, and let the machinery of the retreat–namely, a schedule that dictates every hour of your existence–pull you through. You don’t actually do anything on retreat; you just show up and follow whatever the schedule dictates: now I’m bowing, now I’m chanting, now I’m sitting, now I’m eating, now I’m working. You show up and do whatever the hour demands.

I have reached the point in both my personal and professional life where my days unfold like a Zen retreat, with everything assigned to its allotted hour. This is when I wake up, this is when I feed and medicate the diabetic cats, this is when I load the dishwasher, clean the litter boxes, and walk the dog. This is when I check email, grade papers, and prep the next day’s classes; this is when I teach today’s classes; and this is when I drive home, squeeze in some reading, then watch television with J before going to sleep, ready to repeat the cycle all over again tomorrow.

You put your ducks in a row because not worrying about logistics–like what I should be doing now, and what I should be doing next–frees up energy to do the teaching and writing and human be-ing that keeps your life fueled and flowing.


Another Sunday morning, the end of another week. This is how we inch incrementally toward Spring, toward the end of the semester, toward the end of days. How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives, so choose carefully.

This morning I’ve already done my morning chores, already walked Roxy, already posted a comment (from my phone) to this month’s Facebook book group discussion. I try to touch frequently the things I value: yesterday I finally found a spare half hour to continue building the LEGO Space Shuttle J bought me in June, and every night, I try to read at least a little, even though I never have as much time as I’d like.

Right now, I’m writing these words, and later I’ll write a letter and perhaps some postcards. I don’t have a lot of time for any of these tasks, but I’m a firm believer in what I call tiny touches: better to check in briefly and frequently than only occasionally in longer bursts.

You get in shape by taking a short walk daily, not by running a marathon monthly. As much as I would love (deeply) to have a weekend writing getaway–just me, my books, and notebooks in a cozy, quiet inn somewhere–how I actually write is just like this: a daily half hour squeezed between daily chores. Slow and steady, ad infinitum.

I often remember a grad school colleague who finished her PhD by working on her dissertation one afternoon a week, during the time her mother could look after her kids. There are, I’m sure, people who have long, uninterrupted chunks of time to pursue their passions. I am not one of them.


At the end of another Saturday spent doing laundry, restocking the cat food cupboard, unpacking pet supplies, emptying wastebaskets, and taking out the trash and recycling, I remember something Zen Master Soeng Hyang said years ago at the start of work period during a retreat at the Providence Zen Center. The greatest Bodhisattva, she said, is the person who puts extra rolls of toilet paper in the bathroom. Some jobs are glamorous, some are important, and some are absolutely essential.

Tomasso Hall after dark

Yesterday morning, I woke up with the Muppet Show theme song in my head: It’s time to put on makeup! It’s time to dress up right! It’s time to get things started on the Muppet Show tonight!

Predictably enough, I had the song in my head all day, so I was (still) humming it to myself as I walked into my 3:00 class yesterday afternoon, and maybe that’s appropriate. There is a real sense that teaching is like show biz: although I don’t wear makeup to teach (or ever), I do dress up, and there is more than a touch of theatricality involved.

I didn’t become a college writing professor because I love to stand in front of classrooms full of students, but that’s exactly what I’ve been doing these past thirty years. As a bookish introvert, I would rather be reading. But when class time starts, it’s showtime, and my teaching persona takes over.

So when I walk into my classrooms on any given day, I perform the same song and dance. I pretend to be an extrovert. I turn up my enthusiasm even if my feet are killing me and I need a nap. I do everything short of waving jazz hands to keep my students awake if not engaged: my attempt to offer the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, Muppetational Muppet Show tonight!

Jimsonweed seedpod

This morning, instead of waking up with a song in my head, I awoke with a word: INCORRIGIBLE. This word appeared in my head with absolutely no context, as if someone had decided out of the blue to implant a random mantra in my mind. If a song you can’t get out of your ear is an earworm, is a random word burrowed in your brain a mindworm?

When I tried to think of any reason for “incorrigible,” I couldn’t come up with any. If I’d awoken with “inconceivable” in my head, I could blame The Princess Bride. If “unforgettable” were in mind, I could blame Nat King Cole. “Dirigible” might have appeared due to recent news stories about the Chinese spy balloon. But try as I might, I can’t think of any famous quotes, memes, or news stories involving “incorrigible.”

I did dream last night, but what I remember about those dreams is ragtag and fragmentary, with nothing shedding light on “incorrigible.”

In one dream, my brother and I were a “Scooby Doo”-style crime solving team searching for clues in an odd assortment of crimes. (I should note that in real life, I don’t have a brother.) In one caper, we were sharing a brownstone with random friends, and a group of bad guys broke through our kitchen window looking for guns. Naturally, we suspected a mysterious neighbor who parked his enormous SUV in his spacious kitchen.

In another dream, J and I were photographing a bombed-out building with posters on the doors that said “If you lived here, you’d be homeless by now.” The building had a standing frame, but the walls and windows had been blown out, and for some reason people were filling out raffle tickets for a multimillion dollar prize, slipping those tickets through the mailslot in the (intact) doors.

These dreams are curious enough, but none of them offer any clues into “incorrigible.”

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