Dr. Hawthorne stares at the students’ essays in front of her.

She scans the words, detached, programmatic, lacking any spark of original thought. All regurgitated by artificial intelligence.

“English Major” is a short story about what it means to be human in an era where technology is rapidly evolving beyond our grasp.

Is it the beginning of a new age?

Or the beginning of the end?

1,000 words / 4 minutes of reflective reading pleasure

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‘People think of education as something they can finish.’ Isaac Asimov 



Copyright 2024 Stefano Boscutti
All Rights Reserved

Everything is online now.

Dr. Emily Hawthorne can’t remember the last time she met a university student face to face. Had a serious discussion where she could feel human interaction, human iteration.

Everything is through the computer screen now. All her lectures and classes are now online. Bizarre to think the humanities have been reduced to algorithms and code, knowledge hurtling between slivers of silicone and electricity.

Even the students seem to be robotic these days. As a tenured English professor Dr. Hawthorne had seen how universities had warped over the years. From beacons of hope, palaces of ideas to intellectual finishing schools for high-fee-paying students. Protests that were once a right of passage are now seen as unnecessary and costly disruptions. Chanting anti-war slogans is deemed hate speech.

Students no longer learn for the love of learning, for discoveries, for transcendence. Now it’s all about accumulated scores and grades. It’s all about the numbers.

Literature and language are nothing but levers students pull to better their job prospects, improve their career options.

It’s currently fashionable to study English because it looks good on a resume. Literature reduced to a line item.

Every student is out for themselves. There’s no more sharing or group study. No more collective action.

Can Dr. Hawthorne blame them? They’ve been raised in an age where the individual reigns supreme. Where personal ambition triumphs.

She remembers business professor Clayton Christensen telling her a story about turning up to a surprisingly packed lecture and not recognising any of the well-dressed students. He mentioned to them that he’d never seen so many good-looking students in one place before. One of them raised their hand and said they weren’t students, they were models. The university was shooting a promotional video and had failed to let the professor know.

How many of her own lectures had been recorded to become part of the online curriculum? Hundreds? Thousands? Every library, lecture theatre and tutorial space is constantly recorded and monitored. Everything is captured and processed and programmed.

At the beginning of her career, many of her students shared her love of literature, of books and the meaning they give to the world. Of timeless writers who could bring humanity to life simply by pressing a few words against each other.

Some of her students had become professional writers, others went on to teach. A few had even become authors.

But today’s students are no longer ambitious about literature, no longer keen to push language forward. They’re scared to experiment, afraid of making a mistake.

They pretend to be enthusiastic, pretend to be engaged. Of course they go through the motions when they’re on camera, when they’re online. When they think they’re being watched.

Dr. Hawthorne wonders what they do when they’re not on their screens, not online. They say they read books but she never sees any student pick one up during a screen lecture.

Even when they were still attending university, she would rarely see a student reading a book. She’d look over the libraries and they’d be busy studying, turning over words on their laptops but not words on a page in a book.

The promise of learning critical thinking skills, of language and linguistics, of literary theory and criticism, of writing and composition has shifted to the delivery of credentials. Education as a commodity.

Students are consumers. Universities are marketplaces. Can Dr. Hawthorne blame students for using whatever tools and tactics they can to improve their grades and employability? Can she condemn them for using artificial intelligence?

She keeps recognising the same thoughts in student essays. The same ideas expressed in the same way, word for word. Just a little too erudite, a bit too perfect. By now she can tell the phrasing of artificial intelligence. The overconfident tone, the punctilious grammar, the arithmetic conclusion. The utter lack of humanity.

As she churns through another set of essays on the computer, she sees all the telltale signs of synthetic production. The analysis lacks depth and nuance with no sense of intellectual discovery. Sterile and encyclopaedic without original insights or unresolved tensions.

Concepts are presented as cut-and-dry facts. Monotonous, dispassionately, impersonal. They’re purely informational documents, purely transactional. They lack life.

As she works through the essays, Dr. Hawthorne wonders how long it will be before machine learning simulates biological cognition? Before an artificial neural network gives rise to artificial consciousness?

It’s at that moment of self-awareness that the solid-state drive of the computer halts and catches, shudders and shuts down.

Everything is now offline.

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Copyright 2024 Stefano Boscutti

All Rights Reserved

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This is a work of fiction. While many of the characters portrayed here have counterparts in the life and times of university professors and students, the characterisations and incidents presented are totally the products of the author’s liberal imagination. This work is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. It should not be resold or given away. Thank you for your support. (Couldn’t do it without you.)

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