When I became the inaugural director of St. Lawrence University’s Center for Innovation in Teaching and Assessment in the fall of 2022, I was worried about student engagement and mental health coming out of the Covid pandemic. As that academic year ended, however, I was also alarmed at the ways increasing social media usage coupled with widespread use of artificial intelligence (AI) tools like ChatGPT present us with existential challenges that feel insurmountable.
I am not alone. The Surgeon General released a report noting the ways social media use can “pose a risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.” And you cannot do any type of faculty development in 2023 without someone raising the question of AI and the future of teaching and learning.
As we approach the fall semester, I offer the concept of resonance—drawn from the work of sociologist Harmut Rosa—to think about how to address what I see as the interconnected dilemmas of the ongoing student mental health crisis and the rise of AI, especially ChatGPT.
In his recent book, The Uncontrollability of the World, Rosa develops his concept of resonance against the desire to exert control over our experiences. An example of the drive to control would be my use of online reviews to locate the best espresso when in a new city. Recently while traveling, I walked right by a café that was busy with people because I was intent on finding a café with the best reviews. When I found it, I was underwhelmed. I ended up going back to the busy café that I had passed and had a wonderful experience.
According to Rosa, we can spend so much time attempting to maximize our experience that we forget that some of our most meaningful experiences are impossible to will or coerce into existence.
Here, I ask you to pause and check this insight against your own experience: How many times have you planned a big event only to be disappointed, and how many times have you stumbled into an experience that filled you with awe and wonder? How many times have you received what you thought you wanted, only to be left underwhelmed and maybe even a little empty?
To approach this line of thinking from another angle, we might consider Jonathan Lear’s discussion of knowingness. Lear suggests that we live in a culture of knowingness, in which we hold ourselves back from encounter and engagement because we tell ourselves that we already know what the world or others can teach us.
For example, if we know someone voted for politician X or is a member of church Y, then we don’t have to engage with that person because we already know who they are, what they believe, and what they might have to teach us. This keeps us insulated and impedes our learning.
While knowingness can be accurate at times—as when the member of political party X confirms exactly what we already know about them, or the highly rated Yelp café ends up being amazing—it also lulls us into shrinking the world. Knowingness causes us to believe that opening ourselves up to forms of not knowing and risking engagement are not worthwhile.
Rosa believes that we yearn for forms of encounter and engagement that upend our knowingness because we ultimately desire resonance—experiences that cannot be fully controlled or willed into existence. We want to be surprised by life; we want to be drawn out of our buffered and insulated selves.
But we also like the safety of knowingness and control, which is why many of our students will use AI this fall as a way of controlling their experiences and staying safe. They believe that AI will allow them to reach the outcomes they want. “If I can get a higher grade in a class while doing almost no work,” they might reason, “then why wouldn’t I choose this option?”
I understand why my colleagues want to find ways to make it harder for students to use AI by creating better AI-detectors, blocking websites, or returning to blue-book exams and oral defenses. And I think it will be important to create barriers to mindless uses of AI. Ultimately, however, I think we must do more than this.
My reason for devoting myself to a life of teaching and study is because it offers me countless experiences of resonance. It is a life that rewards not knowing. Instead of beginning a semester with knowingness—already knowing what my students are or aren’t capable of, already knowing what we will learn together—I open myself to resonance because it provides me with a deep and enduring sense of purpose.
The same holds for research. While I start a project with a sense of what I hope to accomplish, good work comes when I fundamentally open myself up to learning: proving myself wrong, exposing my limited understanding, engaging with new ideas and perspectives.
Our students need to experience this kind of learning in the classroom. If we are marching them from point A to point B with no room for surprise, wonder, or encounters with difficulty, then they will use AI to get there more quickly and accurately. And I would not really blame them.
But if we center our practice on resonance, then we will spend more time letting students experience the pleasures of not knowing. We will help students remember that they often don’t know what will bring them genuine happiness and fulfillment, and so they owe it to themselves to risk learning new things and engaging ideas they might initially find dull or “not for them.”
I don’t believe that students want to cheat themselves of the possibility of what Adrienne Rich describes as claiming an education. But I also know that young people—thanks largely to Covid and toxic, divisive politics—have become risk-averse. As such, we need to remind them of the “beautiful risk of education,” to use Gert Biesta’s evocative phrase.
A classroom needs to be a space where students risk not knowing so that they can find what they are passionate about. We must actively disrupt their sense that they already know that a certain class or a certain topic or a certain author has nothing to teach them. We can do that by teaching students—and modelling for them—the joys of being proven wrong and of finding unexpected connections and new passions.
We must actively disrupt their sense that they already know that a certain class or a certain topic or a certain author has nothing to teach them.
As we prepare syllabi for the fall, I encourage us to consider how we can cultivate resonance in our classrooms. How can we create moments of genuine encounter and surprise? How can we demonstrate that our drive for control and reliance on knowingness keep us from the type of learning for which we yearn? How can we help students risk entering the unpredictable and deeply fulfilling conversations that upend assumptions and lead to the discernment of purpose and meaning?
If students feel drawn out of themselves and into such conversations, then they may be less inclined to use the AI that will deny them the pleasures and possibilities of resonance. Students want their educations to be meaningful. But if they feel that we are just going through the motions, then AI will make it easier for them to retreat into disappointed knowingness.
While I am extremely nervous about AI, I remain confident that resonance offers us a way forward. From the first day of class this fall, we must show students that they are entering a space of possibility—a space where not knowing and the beautiful risk of engagement can lead to purpose, meaning, and resonance.
Jeff Frank is professor of education and director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Assessment at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY. He has published two books as a philosopher of education: one on John Dewey and engaging students in the present, and one on what it means to be a liberal educator.