Sam Altman, a co-founder of OpenAI, creators of ChatGPT, said in 2016 that he started OpenAI to “prevent artificial intelligence from accidentally wiping out humanity” (Friend, 2016, October 2). Recently, Elon Musk (also a co-founder of OpenAI) and The Woz (a co-founder of Apple) along with several high-profile scientists, activists, and AI business people, signed a letter urging for a pause in the rollout of Large Language Model (LLMs) AI tools, such as ChatGPT. The letter warns of an “out-of-control race to develop and deploy ever more powerful digital minds that no one—not even their creators—can understand, predict, or reliably control” (Fraser, 4 April 2023). A Google engineer, Blake Lemoine, was fired for claiming that Google’s LLM tool, LaMDA, had become sentient:
I raised this as a concern about the degree to which power is being centralized in the hands of a few, and powerful AI technology which will influence people’s lives is being held behind closed doors … There is this major technology that has the chance of influencing human history for the next century, and the public is being cut out of the conversation about how it should be developed. (Harrison, 2022, August 16)
This three-part series looks at how the pandemic affected both graduate student writers and graduate student writing support.We speak to Jill McMillan, a Learning Specialist at the University of Saskatchewan, and Nadine Fladd, a Writing and Multimodal Communication Specialist at the University of Waterloo.
Part I: In the Thick of It
Here, in part one, we learn about Jill’s and Nadine’s roles and work, and how the pandemic has supported intercampus collaboration and better use of resources to benefit the overall student experience.
Liv: Thank you, Nadine and Jill, for speaking with me about your experiences this year.
Could you tell me a bit about who you are and what you do at your institutions?
Nadine: Sure. I am one of several Writing and Multimodal Communication Specialists at the Writing and Communication Centre at UWaterloo. My role, in particular, focuses on supporting graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty, so a lot of the work that I do focuses on developing programs for graduate students, such as Dissertation Boot Camp, a program called Rock Your Thesis that is designed to help students start their dissertation or thesis writing process on the right foot, and orchestrating and coordinating writing groups and writing communities. In between these activities, I also do a handful of appointments with grad students, postdocs, and faculty each week.
Jill: I’m a Learning Specialist, and I work with Student Learning Services. And yes, there’s a lot of overlap in terms of Nadine’s and my dossiers; there is a focus on programming—facilitating workshops, designing new workshops, trying to think of new initiatives that are going to have value for our graduate student population. I’ve also been hosting virtual writing groups and offer one-to-one appointments, though the majority of the one-to-one support comes from our amazing writing help centre. I also offer a course for international grad students. But otherwise, the focus is on designing new programs, creating new initiatives, trying to connect to other campus partners, and thinking of how we can pool resources, which I think is especially important these days as we just try and figure out how we can offer support without replicating services.
Liv: Have either of you have you found that moving online has helped to reduce that duplication and increase communication between communication units?
Nadine: Maybe, but I feel like every university does have that compartmentalizing of units.
Liv: Has that lessened during the pandemic, stayed the same, or intensified?
Nadine: I think that the Writing and Communication Centre had pretty strong collaborative relationships with campus partners before the pandemic, and that has been a blessing. What I’ve seen is more communication between those campus partners and each other than I’ve seen in the past. So, for example, our Student Success Office has traditionally hosted an orientation for graduate students and during the pandemic the Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs office helped design and took the lead on building an infrastructure for an online orientation program and has since handed that program over to the Student Success Office. So there’s collaboration there that didn’t exist before that I think has been really useful.
Liv: That’s positive. Jill, what have you noticed?
Jill: It’s certainly helped me as someone who is relatively new to campus to make some of those connections a bit more easily. Of course, you still encounter some of these instances where there is duplication popping up, but then you reach out and make that connection. And so, it’s possible that that duplication will eventually turn into a collaboration at a future point. So, I think that in some ways I do recognize that there have been some strange benefits to how everything has happened over the last year in terms of the shift to remote teaching and learning. I think it really has forced people to think, “oh, how do we make use of the limited resources that are currently available to maximize the student experience?”
Nadine: We have an incentive system. So, students have a digital coffee card that they can fill out every time they attend a writing session. And when you’ve attended 12 writing sessions, you earn a mug that has a #WaterlooWrites logo on it. We see a lot of repeat members in our writing community, and people get to know each other and talk to each other during the breaks and help each other. We see a lot of regulars in those communities for sure.
Liv: Interesting. Now, in terms of your own work, how have you kept up professionally or what’s really helped to you in your job?
Nadine: I’m lucky because unlike a lot of writing centres, I have a team I work with of full-time permanent staff who do the same work I do. I’ve learnt a lot from other members on the team as we navigated this together. A lot of my professional development this past year has been technological. One of my colleagues, Elise Vist, our digital guru on the team, has taught me how to do things like build online asynchronous workshops through Rise 360, and so now we can build these really slick looking modules full of videos and interactive elements. And that’s not something that I ever would have even considered trying to attempt a year and a half ago. It wasn’t on my radar.
So, in some ways, the pandemic has been a push to expand my range of teaching tools. And in a lot of ways, at the beginning of the pandemic, we were focused on trying to recreate what exists in our in-person programming in an online format. And I think that worked for a while. But what students have needed after a year in isolation and after a year of video calls has changed. I think my approach to teaching has really gotten back to the very basics of starting with what is the goal, what is the objective and building from there rather than trying to transfer an in-person equivalent to an online environment.
Jill: We have an academic integrity tutorial now and we’re currently just beginning to work on some new writing modules. So, you know, it’s been good to learn all about Panopto, WebEx and other online platforms.
In part two, posted next week, Jill and Nadine share their thoughts on accessibility, especially around international student writing support.
Vol. 2., No. 6 (Winter 2021) Brian Hotson, Co-Editor, CWCR/RCCR
How does fundamental change happen? Sometimes slowly, and then all at once.
Students started saying that they didn’t need to hand in a printed copy of their papers; the instructor asked them to submit them electronically only. They weren’t getting hardcopies of their assignments from their instructors either; they were showing us their assignment instructions on their phones. I remember the all-staff training session where I said that we would allow students to use their devices to show us their assignments. There were protests and conversation, but we agreed that it was the right thing to do for our students. It was a fundamental change, and we all felt it. I developed guidance for the tutors and students. The students were happy with the change, and the tutors who protested adapted were happy the students were happy