I got to thinking this morning that there are so many uninteresting conversations about AI taking place in higher education. I'm talking about the ones that are built around the question of how to tell if students are using AI. First off, the framing of wondering if students are using AI is a real snoozefest. I work with both faculty/staff and student learners, and let me tell you, students are not the only ones using AI in questionable ways. But anyway, I don't invest too much time, if any, in wondering about this, because at the end of the day, I can never, not ever, really know if someone has used AI. I can suspect the heck out of it, but the reality of this tool that we've created for ourselves is that we can never know if someone used it. Period!
Wondering, then, about whether someone used AI feels like a massive waste of time. It reminds me a heck of a lot of the years I spent trying to get an addict in my life sober. In recovery, we learn to stop investing our time in things over which we have no control. I'm coming up on seven years of sobriety. I'm not about to trade addiction to substances for addiction to wondering about who is using AI. Hard pass.
A more interesting question, I think, starts there, from the reality that we can never know. Isn't that what this AI frenzy is really about? It's about a bunch of people who work in a field that has told them over and over that if they study something hard enough they'll understand it. It's about these people realizing that this is not true of all things, and some days I wonder if it's true about anything.
Some things are not knowable. Some things are mysteries that we will never solve. Some things can only be felt, wished upon, or held, but never known. What is AI? Not that.
AI is the knowable on speed.
Does anyone else see the irony that the field of higher education, the field obsessed with studying and discovering the knowable, is now in a panic about AI, a tool that can instantaneously summarize all known knowledge on any given topic?
One of my running social media jokes goes something like this: Humans...the most intelligent species...according to...humans.
The word "intelligence" in "artificial intelligence" represents the intelligence that higher education has elevated to the status of god for the past six hundred years (give or take). It is the fruits of our actions. It is the reaping of what we've sown.
So a more interesting question than "Oh my God did my student use AI to write this?!" is "Now what?" Now that we've crashed into this mirror that's shining our words and deeds back at us, what are we going to do? Now that we have to face the unknowable, what's next?
This "intelligence" of ours is the same "intelligence" that has burned and continues to burn our home. We are the only species on this planet that does this. Beloveds, the real work begins when we recognize that we are not, in fact, the most intelligent species. That all of our smarts, whether natural or artificial, have gotten us right here, on the brink of an extinction that we've caused ourselves. That these big ass brains of ours and four quarters will get us a dollar.
Now, perhaps, we turn to other ways of knowing (ways of knowing celebrated and practiced by many Tribal, Indigenous, and other marginalized peoples): Bodies. Feelings. Sensations. Guts. Hearts. Energy. Plants. Animals. Fungi. Water. Air. To our connection to the natural world, of which we are a part and always have been. A connection that we've tried to ignore and murder but that will not die, that will persist as long as there is breath in any one human body.
What is AI? It's the fruit on the vine of the tree that we planted and watered while we tore every other tree from the ground and burned entire forests.
So now what?
Now that — that's a conversation about AI I'd like to have.
I've noticed the word "innocent" showing up a lot in the discourse this past week.
Who is innocent? Are you? I don't think I've ever used that word to describe myself and don't plan to in the future. But we humans love our binaries, don't we? It makes us feel safer in an unsafe world to believe that there are innocent people and evil people. But does it lead to actual safety? Does that binary make anything better for anyone?
Have you killed? Harmed? Shamed? Lied? Stolen? Remained silent when you should've spoken up?
Babies are innocent. Of course. Is a 5 year old? What is your innocence age cutoff? Every 18 year old was a baby once too. On what day of their life were they no longer?
What about the other side of the spectrum? The elderly are innocent. Okay. Our current and most recent presidents were/are both elderly. Is an eighty-year old incapable of doing harm?
I'm a sober person in recovery which colors everything I think, feel, and do and because I'd be dead without my sobriety I put a lot of trust into the process that got me there. I've sat in rooms with people who've done immense harm and had immense harm done to them. One of the things I love about recovery spaces is that people are invited to show up to repair the harm they've done and that's been done to them. And they do. If you don't believe that people can heal, can practice true remorse, and can change, show up to a recovery meeting. It happens there a hundred times a day. We are capable of repair.
An old-timer in one of my meetings spoke up once and said something like this:
"You know, I hear a lot of people who come to meetings say 'If that were me, I would've done this or that.' But you know what I've learned? If that were you, you would be doing the exact same thing. Because you would've had that person's experiences and gifts and challenges. If you'd lived their exact life, you'd make their exact choices."
I no longer say "If that were me, I would..." If that were me, I'd be doing what they are doing.
My yoga teacher told us once that she'd heard a story about people going to Pema Chodron's retreat (Chodron is a famous Buddhist nun). My teacher said something like this:
"People would sit in front of Pema and confess their darkest secrets. The worst things they'd done. The things that made them feel like monsters. And Pema would say to them, 'There's nothing that you just told me that is outside the realm of humanity.'"
In other words, there is good in every, single one of us. And, the potential for evil is in every, single one of us.
We're alike like that. The only difference is our circumstances. One could argue that the defining feature of our species is that we sit on this precipice between good and evil. A good push in either direction is all it takes.
I've learned that trying to change people doesn't work. I've mostly let that go. Trying to change myself is a full-time job in itself. What I'm more interested in is how we change people's circumstances. I'm less interested in deeming some innocent and dooming others to evil.
I am certainly not innocent. I am hopeful that I tilt toward goodness. I am a believer that we are capable of repair, as individuals, as communities, and as a species. But innocent? Not me.
I started calling COVID "The Great Amplifier" a while ago. As in, trauma is not new, but COVID amplified our experience of trauma. More of us experienced more trauma. COVID amplified existing inequalities and oppressions.
I saw this Inside Higher Ed article about the Educause conference yesterday. Sometimes AI stuff in higher ed really makes me feel like I'm gonna lose my lunch. The thought of all this hoo-ha about AI dominating an education conference is too much. I pray for the weirdos like me who showed up there with the belief that they would be able to do something significant to help change higher education and our world for the better. To ease the immense suffering of humanity and our planet. I hope those weirdos left and got themselves a froyo.
AI in #HigherEd is "The Great Distraction." It's not that we shouldn't talk about it. Of course not. We need to talk about it, and we should certainly be incorporating the reality of the world with AI into our teaching and design decisions. But lord, it's too much.
Students are a little bit curious about AI. It's definitely showing up in their writing. But #HigherEd faculty/staff/leadership's level of interest in AI is not proportional to our students' interest. Not even close. Students want to talk and learn about mental health, the climate crisis, politics, war, peace, and designing better systems for work-life balance. Students have incredibly rich and interesting lives and dreams. It's super annoying to know all of the things that we're not talking about because we're talking about AI.
I picture a future where the world is even more on fire than it is now, and we will look back at how we fought that fire in 2023, and we will see news of AI dominating conferences that could've instead used the collective brainpower in the room to get #HigherEd's act together to prioritize putting out the world's fires. We will look back on stories like that and shake our heads at ourselves.
AI is conference track worthy. It is not the entire conference worthy.
I realize that taking the time to write about stupid AI in this blog is evidence of my own distraction. I just needed to name it for what it is: a distraction from our demise and our chance to prevent that demise. Or to inject some optimism into this, because why not, a distraction from investing in generative designs for the future of higher education and all life on this planet.
Song recommendation to accompany your reading: Maggie Rogers, Back in My Body
I've left Twitter. My socials are currently organized as follows:
1. Instagram: I have two handles. One is private where I post pictures of my family/personal life and lots of stories of my dog in various cute poses. I follow my friends and reality TV personalities. The second is a newer account for my art. I don't want to talk about higher ed on Insta.
2. LinkedIn: I've been fairly active on LinkedIn for a while, but it is definitely still a masking situation. I'm contained on LinkedIn, which is fine. I'm still not corporate on there or anything. I'm still weirder than most. Maybe I'm nudging people toward weirdness just a bit. I can DM people on LinkedIn which is nice. I need to DM to process the world on social media. I need people I can check in with, people who I trust who I can ask, "Is that how you saw it too?" LinkedIn is beneficial for me overall.
Which brings me to this post. I did a lot of writing on Twitter. Some might not have called it writing, but I don't care. It was short-form writing. I would work out what I thought and felt about things in my Twitter threads. That writing benefitted me, and I think some people found that writing useful. I have a Medium page, but it's not the same. Nothing is the same, because things change, so the question I've been asking is, how do I want to shape change? Thank you amb for that question.
I miss writing Twitter threads, and also, Twitter threads were sometimes the place where I went to be lazy about my writing. Some of those threads could've been essays or something more substantial. I am missing that outlet, and it's also true that it was an outlet for my writing that also blocked my writing.
Medium is fine. I don't feel like people are that into Medium. There's something off about it. I don't want to make a Substack. I suspect that Substack is an pyramid scheme. If you love writing on Substack, I wish you the best. It's not for me.
So we arrive back where we started, as always. The more things change the more they stay the same. I really do think that time is a circle (go watch The Arrival movie on Netflix). I am back to blogging. I need a space to hop on and write a paragraph or ten that is mine and mine alone. I'm back to blogging.
Blogging is back. Or never left. Better put, I'm back to blogging. I want a space of my own for my writing. I want and need to write more and more often. This is a space for my occasional thoughts and feels about higher ed, surviving our volatile era, and how to create things that matter.