Jennifer DiGrazia Discusses AI Technology and the Western Massachusetts Writing Project

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Jennifer DiGrazia, Professor of English at Westfield State University, primarily teaches composition to students, as it’s what she’s most “passionate” about. She was also the composition coordinator for 14 years and continues to teach in dual-enrollment classrooms to high school students. When she was first approached by Donna LeCourt, then-Site Coordinator of WMWP and UMass English Department English Chair, to be a co-site director for the Western Massachusetts Writing Project (WMWP), DiGrazia initially felt she didn’t have the bandwidth.

However, DiGrazia eventually agreed to become a co-site director alongside LeCourt, as she cited a lack of awareness about writing pedagogy in nearby academic communities. “Pedagogy is the practice of teaching,” DiGrazia said. “It’s the philosophy and activities that promote your teaching and underlying belief systems, along with the way you implement them. Examples of that could be the activities you do or the assignments you give students.”

“My increasing efforts and energies in both dual enrollment and in English education have suggested a real lack of writing pedagogy,” she continued. “We’ve got plenty of literature pedagogy. We’ve even got critical race pedagogy, but we don’t have writing pedagogy, and I just kept seeing that at the high schools and with the teachers with whom I spoke. It’s like we were speaking different languages when we talked about writing.”

The WMWP is a chapter of the National Writing Project (NWP), which spans about 184 chapters across the United States. The NWP abides by several guiding principles, the first being that teachers need to teach teachers. Established in 1974, the NWP was created out of a demand for the implementation of theory rather than theory alone. To address this, educators rooted in the classroom founded the project to create and share resources surrounding writing pedagogy for like-minded individuals. Therefore, the second principle of the NWP states that teachers should be leaders.

The third principle states that teachers should also be writers. “Those are the three big concepts we continuously circle around,” DiGrazia said. “We develop teachers as researchers who study their own classrooms, but also as scholars and as writers. I think it’s great because it helps in both directions. It helps inform the academics in terms of the focus and research and also gives them context. It works both ways, and it’s potentially transformative.”

In addition to offering a dedicated community for teachers who are also writers, the WMWP offers “a variety of programs and professional development, including a wide range of workshops and graduate courses, several summer institutes, and one annual conferences,” as written in their mission statement. For the past 36 years, WMWP was a part of UMass in Amherst, though it’s now relocating to Westfield State with the help of four co-site directors, along with Megan Kennedy, Director Educator Preparation, Accreditation, and Outreach, who will host WMWP in the University’s Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning.

Catherine Savini, Director of the Reading and Writing Center at Westfield State, at the WMWP’s AI Workshop event in late October.

Recognizing the disparity in number between writing and literature pedagogy classes, DiGrazia recalled being a participant of the WMWP’s Summer Leadership Institute (SLI) program in 2019, when the project was hosted at UMass. She described it as “eye opening”, and during her subsequent sabbatical, DiGrazia made it her focus to bring the WMWP to Westfield State so that participants and attendees could further collaborate over their shared concerns and expertise. 

“I began to be aware that maybe this was the right thing,” she said. “I began thinking about our history as a school rooted in education and how these things could be aligned… that this could be a good fit.”

DiGrazia led this year’s Institute program, along with SLI Co-Director Chris Rea, also a long-time WMWP teacher consultant, which allowed attendees to invest time in both their personal writing, but also academic or scholarship-based projects as well. Attendees then implement protocols or new measures developed during their time at the program when they teach during the academic year and spend the next several months tracking any progress made before coming back together next April and presenting it at the Best Practices Conference.

One member of the WMWP, Kevin Hodgson, who teaches at the William E. Norris School in Southampton, expressed interest in new artificial-intelligence technology. Catherine Savini, Director of the Reading and Writing Center at Westfield State, shares this interest, leading DiGrazia to pair the two together. The two developed an AI workshop which was held on October 19, 2023, and discussed the benefits and detriments of using AI technology to enhance the writing experience. 

“Tools like ChatGPT were cultivated and developed by people scraping the web, which means they have a ton of information,” DiGrazia said. “They’re able to propose some things that could be helpful for students with executive functioning issues, or even people who struggle with structure. I learned all of this at the workshop.”

Students who have difficulty with time management are able to ask ChatGPT to help them construct schedules for homework, whereas similar processes may have been too overwhelming on their own. Students are also able to brainstorm ideas for papers and essays, though DiGrazia said AI technology should never be used to write the papers for the students themselves. “In many ways, it supports activities that we are already doing in composition,” she said. “It’s not this terrifying thing, or it doesn’t have to be. Both Hodgson and Savini really urged teachers to take it on, not ignore it.”

Attendees learning about the benefits and detriments of utilizing AI for the classroom.

As an educator who works in the dual enrollment programs at the Holyoke and Northampton high schools, DiGrazia discussed her own opinions about AI, and on whether she plans to incorporate them into the classroom. “I’m not averse to it. I think my initial reaction was to push it away, but it just may take time to reopen the issue. I don’t see a lot of awareness about it among the student populations with whom I work. I do think people are complacent right now in high schools. When the students move to college, it’s scary, and that’s probably when and why they turn to tools like that, because they can’t meet the demands. We’re famous as professors for not deconstructing writing and helping students understand what we’re really asking for.”

For now, DiGrazia would “love to see a class focused on AI”. “That would be fascinating,” she said. “AI is a tool, but you have to use it effectively and ethically.”

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