How to Stump AI with an Original Essay Question

Photograph of a robot sitting on a bench reading a pamphlet

They say that AI struggles with understanding complex concepts or providing original insights, but so do students. How do you tell them apart? While many readers are now intuitively picking up on the writing style and tone of AI generated essays, another way to identify them is by assigning writing prompts that will baffle the robots.

Ever hear a student talk for a whole minute about a subject they know nothing about? Well machines do it too! So what stumps ChatGPT? Topics that haven’t been widely written about.

Take for example, the 1979 film about labor organizing, Norma Rae. While the film had wide recognition at the time of its release, it has not been a widely picked subject of academic literature and it has only been added to streaming services in the last two years. I asked ChatGPT to write me an essay on the gender politics in the film and it delivered a dud

The introductory paragraph was factual enough, identifying the director and the premise of the film, but then the robot continued to discuss gender in the film by making some false assumptions that the union drive was focused on unequal treatment of female workers, where in fact, it was not a theme in the film at all. ChatGPT assumed gender discrimination was a central theme simply because a question about it was posed. 

When I followed up with a more specific question, prompting the robot to give me an example of gender bias in the film, it made up scenarios of sexual harassment in the workplace that never played out in the film. One example the robot uses to beef up its argument that gender bias was a prominent theme in the film was that Norma Rae, “is initially given the task of cleaning and is denied the opportunity to operate the machinery, which is considered a higher-paying job.” That little factoid is completely false. The protagonist of the film is not denied advancement opportunities, in fact, when she begins to organize she is promoted. This example might have been pulled from a different film, the 2005 film North Country about a class action lawsuit in a mining town where the protagonist is a woman who is denied advancement opportunities and is a victim of sexual harrassment and sexual assault. 

A lot can be written about gender politics in Norma Rae. For example, one way the company men try to undermine the protagonist is by spreading rumors that she engages in sexual work and pointing out that she has children from different men. A student who watched the film could easily write a great essay about a scene in which Norma and her husband are having a huge fight over her neglecting her ‘domestic duties’ when she becomes completely absorbed in the organizing drive. The prompt is good, ChatGPT just doesn’t know anything about it. 

Now, if you ask your students to write essays about films like Citizen Kane, watch out! The robot has a lot of material to draw from. Here you can read its response to the prompt: What is the economic politics in Citizen Kane? 

Photo by Andrea De Santis

Photo by Possessed Photography