Writing, Gen AI and zones of awkward engagement

I’ve been thinking and reflecting on my own writing habits recently. As you might remember, dear reader, I used to be quite a regular blogger, but over the past year (maybe 2) my output has really tailed off. Partly this is due to the work I have been doing, but also it’s due to a lack of an imperative to write here. When you are working as a consultant, it’s not always possible or appropriate to share everything you are doing on a regular basis. This contrasts with when I started blogging, when I was working firmly within “the university/the academy” and sharing of practice through blogging was not just an habit, but almost an imperative to my professional “being”.

I used to joke that my blog was my professional memory. A place for me to record what I had seen, done, was thinking about. There was a freedom in sharing practice outside the confines of an academic publication. I have a different kind of freedom from the academy now – but it comes with a different set of parameters. At times I really do feel the need to write something. I have to get whatever ‘it’ is out and into text. Over the past year I have noticed that physical need to write here has receded.

I think that is partly due to the work I have been doing, “other stuff” going on, and tbh a bit of laziness on my part. You know that feeling of “I’ll do it tomorrow” but tomorrow is always another, day, week away . . . I also think it’s partly down to not being sure what to write about – particularly in relation to Gen AI. I’ve been reading a lot, forming my own understanding of how LLMs work, trying to work out what the implications of it are for education. I still can’t quite articulate my views as clearly as others – and I’m still quite early on in my personal journey using some of the tools.

As part of my learning journey around Gen AI, I’ve been so grateful for the work of Helen Beetham with her (far from) imperfect offerings. I’ve also been listening to the Generative Dialogues: Generative AI in Higher Education podcast series Helen and Mark Carrigan have created. I’ve been particularly taken with the episodes where Mark and Helen share their experience, drivers and approaches to writing and the use of Gen AI in the writing process.

I was really taken with Mark’s explanation of the differences he has found with different AI tools – comparing ChatGPT to a list generator, where as Claude he finds more critical, and I guess more useful. He has spent time inputting lots of his work and developing prompts to get useful responses. He shared how he finds using these tools can help him be more productive and also more reflective. Again, he has spent a lot of time getting to this point, is fully cognisant of the negative implications Gen AI. But it was really interesting to hear how he is experimenting with using the tools.

In contrast, Helen talked more about the role of language, its structural and cultural implications. She shared how in creative writing classes she helped her students to develop their “academic voice” through various techniques including parody, irony and imitation. This is all part of developing students’ own voice. This again really resonated with me, and made me reflect on how writing on this blog had allowed me to develop my voice. One that wasn’t constrained by “academese”, that was a bit underwhelming in places, had a few mistakes, lots of typos but also seemed to resonate with other people and their experiences.

Blogging allowed me to connect with people in different ways. More importantly the process of writing, helped me to articulate my understanding, experiences, thoughts on the factors that were influencing my practice and my outlook/philosophy. It also allowed me to make mistakes, to learn, to (hopefully) improve in a safe space that I controlled.(Thank you Reclaim Hosting).

The craft of writing takes time, and time is the one thing that there just never seems to be enough of. We all need to be more “efficient”, save time, create more “stuff”, QA will come through the tech . . . Ergo using GenAI tools must be useful – something that we all need. Of course, it’s not that simple. There are positive aspects around tools can increase accessibility, that help scaffold and support – there’s always a balance to be struck.

Every digital tool I use is always “encouraging” me to try out their AI options. In terms of LLMs, I do see some useful aspects – particularly for structuring writing. For students (and for anyone) having some additional support around structure can be useful. In my own experiments, I have found that ChatGPT (more recently Claude) can help with certain writing tasks, including structure and the what I now see as inevitable lists. The time I have found ChatGPT most useful was when I used it to help write a data protection policy. That was a task, and and area that I don’t have much expertise or tbh much will to find out out more about, so getting a quick response from the prompts I gave it was really helpful and did save me a lot of time and huffing and puffing!

Helen and Mark’s discussions take in far more than my very simplistic overview. I am really appreciative of the way their conversations weave in the wider sociological, cultural and political aspects of not just GenAI but technology in general in relation to their own contexts within and outwith HE.

Mark’s reflections on the importance of context in terms of ed tech really resonated. So often with technology, not enough consideration is given to context. Ed tech tends to be directed at the general, the homogenous, and driven from a neo-liberal, capitalist context. Ensuring we all have the agency to understand our context, be able to experiment, critique use ed (or any) tech appropriately is so important. We can’t just buy and system and expect that financial transaction to have a meaningful, transformative impact on anything unless we support and adapt it for our context(s).

So, I was listening to Mark and Helen the other day as I travelled to an art and the environment conference. I was thinking about writing, my lack of writing and enjoying the rich discourse before I had to switch my head to a completely different context. But of course, everything is connected and as I was listening the the speakers at the conference there seemed to be quite a lot of connected themes – well for me anyway.

One of the issues around the use of GenAI in education I see is a recognition, a fear, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but maybe it’s a sense, a sense of loss. The loss of the craft, the art and the human endeavour around creative and original writing. Writing is hard, and it maybe it should be (apart from writing data protection policies obvs!).

The first speaker at talked quite a bit about loss in terms of environmental loss. This was beautifully illustrated through a picture of a highland moor – a vast, empty landscape. It scale of the emptiness has a certain beauty, but as was pointed out this isn’t a natural landscape. It’s one that has been created by humans through cutting down the trees, displacing people, introducing and supporting sheep and deer who trample and suppress the indigenous plant. Images like the one she shared are really what most of us ( myself included) think are natural, but they are actually quite unnatural – but they are what we see, what we experience. So, how can we miss what we have never seen? A couple of terms that were used in this environmental context, was “shifting baseline syndrome” and “environmental, generational amnesia“. You can’t mourn what you don’t see or experience. How can you replace/rebuild what your have never experienced?

I think there is an analogy here with education and some of the concerns around GenAI and education. If what you see, experience, is “AI enhanced”, all the output is based on very limited, global north, biased algorithmic development and data, how can anything other than homogeny exist? Are some of us mourning the loss of human creativity, and experiencing a sense of grief around our educational loss. I think I am.

There is a lot of friction between personal practice, creating relevant educational experiences for our students, sectoral responses to ed-tech, pressures from over hyped narratives from ed-tech and “the markets” around the inevitable march of AI and its promises of efficiency. (But let’s not mention the environmental cost of all these efficiency savings). One of the other speakers talked about friction in terms of land use and environmental impacts. How it often seemed that we were ” beginning again in the middle of things” (based on the work of Anna Tsing).

That phrase, “beginning in the middle of things” just seemed to sum up my working life with edtech. You just kind of get the measure of one thing, and something else comes along. Anyway in environmental terms Tsing also talks about “zones of awkward engagement” to describe the levels of friction between global/local/human interactions. Again, this really resonated. I feel I am very much in a zone of awkward engagement with GenAI. I can’t ignore it, its impact on my working and “real” life, but I am aware of the wider implications of it – not least the environmental and human exploitation it has brought.

The speaker then went on to describe art and artists as having the potential to be “subtle disrupters” to organisational and wider public attitudes towards climate change. I’m glad we have so many subtle and not so subtle disrupters like Mark and Helen (and so many others) who are helping people like me navigate my own zone of awkward engagement with GenAI.

NB I did think about running this text through ChatGPT and/or Claude, but you know what – this is my space and I neither want or need to do that. I also tried creating an image using Openart.AI – too slow, and not that great so here is a photo of something I saw this morning that made me smile!

4 thoughts on “Writing, Gen AI and zones of awkward engagement”

  1. Hi Sheila,

    Writing about writing has become one of your themes by the sound of it. Also the way you do this has a feel of the autoethnographic about it, so maybe that’s a strand to explore?


    “… an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno).”

    • Ellis, C., Adams, T.E. and Bochner, A.P. (2011). Autoethnography: an overview. Historical Social Research, 36 (4), 273-290.

    All a bit academic for sure, but perhaps stepping back form that purpose/context and exploring from your present positioning might be a way forward.

    I like the idea of ‘zones of awkward engagement’, which does sound like a fit for exploring GenAI among other things.

    The other construct that jumped to mind out of that phrase is: `Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD) after the work of Lev Vygotsky, the soviet educationalist/psychologist. I wonder where a GenAI tool might ‘fit’ as a possible ZPD?

    All the best,


    1. Thanks Bill and yes, all a bit meta at times. Thanks for the refs and yes ZPD did briefly cross my mind – might need to spend a bit longer on that!

  2. Writing, blogging, creativity, to me it’s all a glass and contents of water perspective- what if every bit you do is seen as a positive than looking at what you have not done as a negative? Easy to dispense as I look at a 2 month backlog of unposted photos, going back to when I got to see you at OER24!

    The resignation and loss feelings are so understandable but some part of me does not want to give in to that. Especially in our own practice. Your creativity is there always at the same level it’s just channeled differently. It’s not in the things you produce but your inner workings. Well I think.

    I’m not fully anti genAI but anytime I think of reaching for a prompt box, I ask, is it really necessary? Do I want a microwave dinner or something I cooked? Sometimes it is. I applaud you for not reaching for the AI image spurting stuff? The photo is ideal, real, and packs a punch. I see a few artists produce stunning images but the vast majority I see in articles and the blog posts I read have an utter sameness, maybe with your eye for color, tone you can characterize it, but to me I see it as Muzak rather than music.

    I also feel myself questioning what seems like an embedded assumption/desire- if this GenAI thing can save me time on a droll task, it will free me up to do something more significant or important. Is that what happens? If we are bemoaning the loss of creativity and craft, I wonder how we blame/scribe as to we stop arting, writing, etc — again I stand guilty as charged with lesser blog writing etc.

    I can’t feel good resigning myself to it all. When AI gets bad it’s time to mock it!

    Art on, Sheila. Your writing is always there and readers are too.

    1. Thanks Alan, I guess we are all finding our way through things right now. I am curious, but cautious! I’m sure I will find more positive uses too!

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