English composition

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Mabel Lang taught at Bryn Mawr from 1943 until 1988, and for nearly every semester of those forty-five years she taught elementary Greek. The course became so popular that she often taught two sections, one at eight o’clock in the morning and the other at nine. You can read about her here.

Prof. Mabel Lang teaching, seated at a desk in front of a blackboard.

I thought of Mabel the other day when this essay by Blake Smith appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  It has to do with the writing centers that feature on nearly every college campus these days, and by extension with the teaching of writing generally. In the writer’s view, college writing centers are ineffective, jargon-infested hives of neo-liberal practice, like the assertion that a good essay “delivers value” to its reader, and of progressive theory about race and capitalism. (Quite how neo-liberalism and woke piety manage to sit in the same room goes unexplained.) They fail in their plain duty, to teach students how to write.

I know little about teaching English composition, and the merits of writing centers are not my concern here. I want to think instead about a two-fold assumption that receives only passing attention in Smith’s essay: that the actual delivery of instruction in composition is in the hands of graduate students, adjuncts, and other dwellers on the lower rungs of the academic hierarchy that culminates in tenured full professors, and that instructors of composition and other elementary subjects wish they were somewhere else. As Smith puts it, “instructors at writing centers, chafing at their low status within their institutions and fields, and resenting that they are often called upon to bring students up to speed rather than to do what is perceived as more serious intellectual work, try to give some gravitas to their positions by charging the simple but difficult work of writing with a complicated new conceptual vocabulary or pompous assertions of their own social importance.”

This hierarchical dynamic certainly holds true for my own field. In most colleges and universities, including Bryn Mawr, tenured faculty do not teach the early stages of Greek and Latin, and most would be horrified, I think, at the thought that they should. Recently I suggested to one of my senior colleagues, a retired full professor, that it would be good if people like her brought their accumulated wisdom to the teaching of elementary or intermediate languages. She opined that she didn’t want to take a job away from the graduate students to whom it rightfully belonged. A few years ago, I interviewed at a large, midwestern state university for a job overseeing and guiding the graduate students who taught elementary and intermediate languages. During the interview, I suggested that one of my goals would be to have every member of the department, including senior faculty, teach intermediate Greek or Latin at least once every five years. The learned men and women sat in stunned silence before moving on to the next question.

Many senior college and university classicists, I suspect, have stopped thinking of themselves as language teachers. Their calling, they argue, is a higher one: to convey to students the complex ideas and critical theories that constitute the conversation of the humanities in modern universities. They have spent a lifetime, they might argue, becoming expert in Plato’s metaphysics or ancient religions or Roman political theory, and in the modern ideas, from Althusser to Žižek, that shape those topics. Why should they waste their time with the ablative absolute?

I can think of three reasons: first, to show that they care about the ablative absolute; that is, that they care about the close, analytical reading that lies at the heart of classical studies. (Assuming, of course, that they do believe that—there are signs that the belief is not universal.) Second, to show that beginners and beginnings matter, and so that a first-year student beginning Greek is as important to them and to their professional ambition as a graduate student writing a dissertation on Pindar. (This was the message sent by Lionel Trilling every time he taught a section of the required freshman humanities course at Columbia.) Third, because to teach anything is to set your person before students as an example, and beginning students may need the example of senior scholars.

Is it a waste of time and talent for tenured full professors at the height of their scholarly prowess to teach Greek 101?  Mabel Lang didn’t think so.

~Lee T. Pearcy


Update 2/8/2023:  Above I wondered “how neo-liberalism and woke piety manage to sit in the same room ”  A hint of an answer appeared in this essay, also from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

DEI Inc. is a logic, a lingo, and a set of administrative policies and practices. The logic is as follows: Education is a product, students are consumers, and campus diversity is a customer-service issue that needs to be administered from the top down. (“Chief diversity officers,” according to an article in Diversity Officer Magazine, “are best defined as ‘change-management specialists.’”) DEI Inc. purveys a safety-and-security model of learning that is highly attuned to harm and that conflates respect for minority students with unwavering affirmation and validation.

(Anna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder, “Yes, DEI Can Erode Academic Freedom,” Chronicle of Higher Education 2/6/2023.)




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ChatGPT, a natural language processing tool that draws on a ginormous pool of online text to produce answers to prompts that sometimes pass the Turing Test, has been generating a lot of buzz lately, mostly of the “I’m a journalist—will this put me out of business?” variety. I gave it a run (it’s available here) and came away with the impression that it is one of those polymorphous technologies that human beings have created, adapted, and used to realize new possibilities in human nature. In that it resembles two other mimetic technologies: alphabetic writing and photography.

I started by giving ChatGPT a prompt based on one of my current projects: “Write a 2000-word essay on ‘Time, Texts, and Fate in the Aeneid’.” The answer was astonishingly good, about what an able undergraduate might produce given the same prompt on an examination—with one exception. It was exactly 2000 words long and ended in the middle of a sentence. That truncation is significant. It shows that ChatGPT lacks phenomenological sense. Most human writers have a mental image of their completed work before they start—what genre it belongs to, how long it needs to be, what reading it will feel like. But unlike a human writer, ChatGPT can’t form an idea of its completed essay—or anything else. (I’ll append ChatGPT’s 2000 words at the end of this post.)

Then I resorted to the modern equivalent of Googling yourself: “Tell me what you know about Lee Pearcy.” The answer was reassuring: “I’m sorry, but I don’t have any information about a person named Lee Pearcy. Could you provide more context or background information about the person you are asking about?”

All right, ChatGP—let’s see how you are with languages other than English. “Dove si trova la chiesa di Santa Maria sopra Minerva?”

La chiesa di Santa Maria sopra Minerva si trova a Roma, in Italia. Si trova nei pressi della piazza del Pantheon e della piazza della Minerva, nel quartiere romano di Campo de’ Fiori. La chiesa è considerata uno dei principali esempi di architettura gotica a Roma e ospita alcune opere d’arte di grande importanza, come il monumento funebre di Maria Christina di Sassonia, realizzato da Antonio Canova.

Not bad at all, but ChatGPT commits the same error that many students make: giving more information than the question asks, and so risking that the information supplied will be incorrect. As far as I know, Santa Maria sopra Minerva contains no tomb by Canova, whose monument to Maria Christina of Austria (not Saxony) is in a church in Vienna.

How about Latin, and staying in the same neighborhood?  “Ubi est templum ‘Pantheon’ nominatum, et a quo aedificatum est?”

The Pantheon was a temple located in Rome, Italy. It was named after the gods of ancient Rome, and was dedicated to all the gods of the pantheon. The Pantheon was built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian and was completed in 126 AD. It was originally built as a temple to honor the gods, but it was later converted into a Christian church.

Not so good. The prompt is unambiguously Latin, but ChatGPT failed to recognize the language and homed in on the word “Pantheon” to produce an answer out of a not very well-informed guidebook for tourists.

I tried again but moved away from buildings in Rome: “Quando mortuus est Vergilius poeta, et ubi sepultus?”

Vergilius, qui fuit poeta Romanus celeberrimus, mortuus est die 21 Septembris anno 19 a.C. in Neapoli. Sepultus est in campus Martius Romae, ubi tumulus ei a Caesaris imperatore factus est.

Vergilius est auctor carminum epicorum “Aeneis” et “Eclogarum”, qui adhuc hodie in universis mundi partibus leguntur et venerantur. In Aeneide, Vergilius historiam Troianae urbis et Aeneae, qui fuit Troianus princeps, narrat, qui post Troianam destructionem ad Italiam profugit et ibi Romanam gentem condidit. Eclogae vero sunt carmina pastoralia, quae de amore, amicitia, et rusticis vitae aspectibus agunt.

Vergilius est etiam poeta didacticus, qui in “Georgicis” de agris colendis et de animalium cura scripsit. Opus eius maximum et optima notum est “Aeneis”, in qua Vergilius heroicos mores et virtutes Romanorum describit et glorificat.

Well, that’s better—but cue John Cleese’s schoolmasterly centurion in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”:

“In Neapoli?  In Neapoli?? Neapolis is the name of a city, town, or small island, you ignorant twit!  Case?  Case?

“Uh, abl—no, no, locative.  Locative!”

And so on. Here, too, ChatGPT writes about as well as a fairly able student. Wobbly Latin—“in campus” for in campo and “by the emperor of Caesar”—is nothing, however, next to the surprising information that Vergil was buried in a tomb built by Augustus on the Campus Martius and the suggestion that the Bucolics are among Vergil’s epic poems. From what fragment of online Latin did ChatGPT generate those bits of information? (In fairness, later in the paragraph ChatGPT does get the genre of the Bucolics right.)

All this was great fun, but it set me to wondering. Do human beings consistently underestimate or undervalue our capacity for creativity and playfulness? And as a result, do mimetic technologies—those that imitate our distinctively human characteristics, like language or image-making—generate anxieties that, so far at least, have proved groundless?

The most notorious such anxiety, which has come up more than once in articles about artificial intelligence in general and ChatGPT in particular, is Plato’s worry about the technology of writing, which he feared would destroy men’s power to remember ideas and arguments and so produce an illusion of wisdom. In the Phaedrus, he has Socrates invent a conversation between two Egyptian gods, whom he calls Thamus and Theuth. Theuth, the ibis-headed god better known as Thoth, has invented writing and brings his new toy to Thamus.

“This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.”

But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”

                                                                         Phaedrus 274e–275b

Socrates was, in a way, right. Greek culture changed with its adoption of alphabetic writing, and perhaps Greeks no longer used their memories in the same way as they had. But they used them in new ways: to create texts that were hard to remember, like prose histories—and Plato’s dialogues.

Similarly the invention of photography led to predictions of the death of painting, because painting was, by the doom-sayers at least, thought to be equivalent to making an exact likeness. But once again, under the pressure of a technology that seemed to imitate one of our characteristic practices, human beings imagined new ways of putting paint on surfaces and new ways of thinking about what it meant to do so. And one Cézanne is worth a dozen pictures of Napoleon and his troops, accurate down to the last epaulette and button, by Mesonnier.

ChatGPT and its less sophomoric successors may mean the automation of some kinds of writing, and some teachers of writing may have to rethink what they do. But teachers of writing, and writing itself, will last a while yet, and I, for one, will not regret the demise of the five-paragraph essay.

~Lee T. Pearcy


Update 12/21/2022:  See now this account from the Wall Street Journal of ChatGPT in an AP English class.

Appendix: Chat GPT’s response to “Write a 2000-word essay on ‘Time, Texts, and Fate in the Aeneid’.”

The concept of time, and its relationship to fate, plays a central role in Virgil’s epic poem “The Aeneid.” Throughout the poem, Virgil uses various textual devices to illustrate the ways in which time and fate intersect and shape the lives of the characters. At the same time, the poem itself serves as a kind of text, a written record of the events and characters that it describes. In this essay, I will explore how time, texts, and fate are interconnected in “The Aeneid,” examining the ways in which they influence and reflect upon one another.

One of the central themes of “The Aeneid” is the role of fate in shaping the lives of the characters. From the very beginning of the poem, Virgil makes it clear that the events that transpire are predetermined by the gods. The Trojans, for example, are destined to found a new city in Italy, a fate that is foretold by the prophecy of the Cumaean Sibyl. Similarly, the fate of the Trojan hero Aeneas is determined by the gods, who ensure that he will eventually become the founder of Rome.

The concept of fate is closely tied to the passage of time in “The Aeneid.” As the poem progresses, we see that the fates of the characters are often connected to the passage of time, whether it is the passage of years, or the fleeting moments of a single day. For example, Aeneas’s journey to Italy is marked by the passage of time, as he travels from place to place, encountering various challenges and obstacles along the way. Similarly, the fates of the characters are often linked to the passage of time, with certain events being foretold or predestined to happen at a specific moment.

One of the key textual devices that Virgil uses to illustrate the relationship between time and fate is the use of prophecy. Throughout “The Aeneid,” we see that various characters are given prophecies about their future, which shape their actions and decisions. The most notable example of this is the prophecy of the Cumaean Sibyl, which foretells the future of the Trojans, and serves as a guiding force for Aeneas and his companions. Other examples of prophecy in the poem include the predictions made by the Trojan seer Helenus, and the prophecies of the gods themselves, who frequently intervene in the lives of the characters to shape their fates.

Another important aspect of time in “The Aeneid” is the way in which it is connected to the concept of history. Throughout the poem, we see that the events and characters are situated within a larger historical context, with Virgil using various textual devices to situate the events within a specific time period. For example, the poem is set against the backdrop of the Trojan War, and many of the characters and events are directly connected to this conflict. At the same time, the events of the poem are also shaped by the larger context of Roman history, with the eventual founding of Rome serving as a key event in the story.

The concept of history is closely tied to the idea of text in “The Aeneid.” Throughout the poem, we see that the written word plays a central role in shaping the events and characters. For example, the prophecy of the Cumaean Sibyl is written down and passed on from generation to generation, serving as a guiding force for the Trojans. Similarly, the deeds of the Trojan hero Aeneas are recorded and passed down through the ages, becoming the stuff of legend and myth. In this way, the written word serves as a kind of text, a record of the events and characters that it describes, and a




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