AI: The underlying institutional inequity and its presence in the English classroom

by Michael Taromina, Managing Editor

With the advancement of technology fundamentally changing the conception of teaching and learning in the past decade, few have taken the time to ponder the ramifications of fusing literacy with digital spaces. But electronic institutions have instilled artificial intelligent (AI) services to aid educational constituents to fulfill profitable and lucrative desires. The problem is not that these organizations exist and have evolved to meet needs of this generation’s curriculum, it is more that students and those who are entrusted to preside information onto them are unaware of the difference between use and abuse. AI supplements such as Grammarly and Sparknotes, though different in online applicability, are essentially making pupils lazier, dumber, and less motivated to solve all the intricacies within an English classroom. Considering that reading and writing are prerequisites that comprise large sections of college admissions exams, as well as college in general, this is a conversation that English teachers and supervisors need to have, and need to have now. 

Writing had long seemed to be an academic skill that has been facilitated by technology, such as Google Docs, but not one that was fundamentally challenged by such online collaborations. The complexity of grammar rules and the varied contexts in which they manifest appeared to preclude any foundational changes in writing pedagogy, and the teacher’s red pen seemed poised to dominate for a long time. However, recent progress in AI development has refined and improved upon grammar correcting algorithms—commercially available in interfaces such as Grammarly. In lieu of the red pen is Grammarly’s red underline, which likewise connotes a writer’s error. 

English and Writer’s Workshop teachers should essentially benefit from this advancement. Long gone is the necessity to collect and bombard their student’s drafts with a sea of crimson ink. Now, pupils can submit clean and spotless essays where everything from spelling to syntax to sophistication are cared for. Students also have a reason to profit from this. The feedback from Grammarly is immediate, highly accurate, explanatory, simple, and customizable. It decreases the need for one to contemplate the correctness of their sentences before scribing them down, which ultimately ups the speed and adroitness toward writing. But this leaves one profoundly important predicament: Now that students can submit writing that is largely grammatically sound without a teacher’s direct instruction, what does this mean for how English faculty teach and assess students’ writing, as well as the incentive for their pupil’s to respond and digest such material? In short, why and how would an English teacher teach and expedite memorization for grammar in their class, if their students can forever rely on Grammarly for their writing?

One could say that taking away Grammarly from an English student is like taking away a calculator from a Math student. I wholeheartedly disagree and think it is wrong to make such a comparison. Just as teachers teach students arithmetic number sense during their early childhood education, so too are foundational sentence structures and grammar continue to be taught in primary schools. But what differentiates this complex analogy is the extent to which people remember the rules of each subject. The concept of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are never forgotten as a student increases in grade level, but they are facilitated through the use of a calculator, whereas the need for a digital resource such as Grammarly decreases all incentive for memorization. This is seen and sustained throughout a student’s life, even outside of school. While I personally do not agree with the gist of standardized testing, as I believe college admission decisions should not be based on whether students mastered the esoteric distinction between ‘who’ and ‘whom,’ a grammatical hiccup that many linguists now agree makes no difference in language understanding. However, it is relevant in our lives and has become a burdensome obstacle throughout a high schooler’s experience. Because of Grammarly, most pupils have to re-learn the mechanics and logistics of grammar and syntax, in order to pass the English section of the test. What is supposed to be a common-sense puzzler, considering the fact that we write everything from essays to text messages on a daily basis, has since become an onerous task of which requires studying and tutoring. It leaves one to wonder, is Grammarly really helping this generation and making our lives easier?

Mark Twain once said, “A person who won’t read has no advantage over a person who can’t read”. It is sad to even think about the fact that there are 781 million people in this world who are illiterate, according to Such a statistic should augment a person’s appreciation for acquiring the skill to read, and to be able to read complex literature and language. But unfortunately, from what the advantage in technology has provided us with, I have not seen that to be true. In English class, we are expected to read all sorts of novels and become engrossed within the character’s stories and setting itself through the diction of the authors. But because reading can be boring or time-consuming, many high schoolers go through life without even opening a novel. Instead, they resort to online databases that allow for labyrinthine literature to become easily explained. Long gone are the classes in which teachers need to demonstrate the dedication of symbolism, theme, motifs, setting, etc – one can just do a quick Google sojourn to Sparknotes and call it a day. Unfortunately, this practice has become commonplace in the classroom. It highlights a lack of care for literature, and an ultimate lazy atmosphere circulating even the most arduous of courses. Overall, can we blame technology for this? My opinion is yes. Technology’s purpose is to make the lives of those who use it more conievent, but in doing so, it hinders our ability and motivation to appreciate the outmoded sources of learning such as reading and writing, becoming an underlying institutional inequality in today’s society. 

Should we be afraid that this technology that impedes the learning process that is necessary for success has become abused by younglings without any moral reservation? That is the question (and for those who have not read Hamlet, and merely looked it up on Sparknotes, will not understand such a quip)! My personal reservation is that our society should be afraid, but after speaking with English teachers, I have been more positively reassured for our future. I spoke specifically with Ashley Yancy, an English teacher who presides over Advanced Placement and Advanced English courses. In regardings to reading, she believes that teachers must strive for “balance” within their class. While she knows Sparknotes can hinder a person’s ability to develop critical thinking and analytical skills, she doesn’t disparage the usage of it as a supplementary, especially as a means of review for those who struggle with the plot. Additionally, Yancy advocates that the structure of tests and exams will impact the usage and reliance on Sparknotes within English classes.

“Sparknotes can be a resource that helps you, but as a replacement, it is not going to get you to exactly where you need to be on the student end,” said Yancy. “On the teacher’s end, we should structure our assessments in a way that measures higher-level skills and applications, because then Sparknotes won’t be able to be a replacement.”

Valerie Jaretsky, English and Journalism teacher at Glen Rock High School, takes another side to this hot-topic debate. She understands that she cannot control a student’s motivation or affinity toward a book, but by modeling and showcasing the ways on how to deduce literature and practice proper means to closely read and analyze, a pupil might not need to use Sparknotes when doing so on their own time. According to Jaretsky, the “balance” should refer more to finding a way to incorporate complex activities within class that can’t be blatantly plagiarized by Sparknotes, but also dedicating class time to scrutinize plot and literary devices through activities and in-class assignments. 

In regards to Grammarly, Jaretsky and Yancy share much of the same opinion towards its use and abuse in the classroom. They understand that we live in a world where every piece of writing can be autocorrected, and in doing that, students are reluctant to worry and memorize the grammar procedures that are tested in standardized testing, college, and in the real world. Emphasizing clear communication and the nuances of all the devices in connotation and denotation are paramount to building a dexterous relationship with the English language – to the point where Grammarly is not necessary and work is flawless. Whether it is teaching grammar as a step in the writing/editing process, an overall unit, or sporadically throughout the year  – getting students to understand what constitutes eloquent and coherent English and practicing those mechanics through activities and essays will minimize the amount of grammar mistakes they make, thereby decreasing the use of Grammarly. 

“The computer is going to be there forever, so our best bet is to not burden our students with the old-fashioned ways of handwriting, but more to act as an analyzer of thought and content and hope that some of the grammar sticks!” said Jaretsky. 

As long as teachers are contemplating this classroom conundrum, and initiating ways to facilitate learning through without abusing these artificial intelligence, I think that is all one can ask for. Those who choose to cheat, be lazy, or not appreciate the gift of reading and writing for what it is will suffer in the real world, in ways they won’t be able to prepare for. And while teachers should always continue to display the opportunities of a person who swindles the system, or lack thereof, for the hope of instilling better academic morals, intretity, and dignity within the current generation. “This above all: to thine own self be true” (Again, if you ‘Sparknotesed’ Hamlet, this will not make sense to you).