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ChatGPT: Is this the end of writing and research? I don’t think so.

ChatGPT: Is this the end of writing and research? I don’t think so.

by Douglas Yeo

I first heard of ChatGPT in an article in The Atlantic by Daniel Herman, “The End of High-School English” (December 9, 2022). He wrote:

Teenagers have always found ways around doing the hard work of actual learning. CliffsNotes date back to the 1950s, “No Fear Shakespeare” puts the playwright into modern English, YouTube offers literary analysis and historical explication from numerous amateurs and professionals, and so on. For as long as those shortcuts have existed, however, one big part of education has remained inescapable: writing. Barring outright plagiarism, students have always arrived at that moment when they’re on their own with a blank page, staring down a blinking cursor, the essay waiting to be written.

Now that might be about to change. The arrive of OpenAI’s ChatGPT, a program that generates sophisticated text in response to any prompt you can imagine, may signal the end of writing as a gatekeeper, a metric for intelligence, a teachable skill [emphasis added].

The end of writing. As a researcher, writer, and college professor, I this got my attention. I found another article in The Atlantic, this one by Stephen Marche (December 6, 2022). It has a bold title: The College Essay Is Dead.

ChatGPT_College_essay_dead

These are breathless, panicky assertions. What is this?

One of the things that some people find appealing about artificial intelligence (AI) programs like ChatGPT is that they may help people generate writing that is far better than what they could produce themselves. Feed ChatGPT your poorly constructed text and—voilà!—AI will make you sound like a college professor with a PhD who has published 100 books.

Does it work? Are these breathless, panicky assertions true?

Two things are at play here: quality of writing, and quality of writing with quality information. I decided to put ChatGPT to the test. I signed up for an account (that took one minute; it’s free at this time, although eventually the platform will be monetized) and started my experiment. 

I decided to start with a piece of bad writing. I imagined I was a student who was taking a college-level introduction to music class. The teacher asked the students in the class to write an essay about any musical instrument and I chose the trombone. The teacher didn’t want an essay with footnotes; she wanted more of an “impression paper.” I wrote a few poorly constructed sentences and asked ChatGPT to “fix this and make it better.”  Here’s what ChatGPT did with my pathetic writing. The image below is a screenshot of the result and in all of the examples below, the text I inputted is preceded by an icon with DO (for Douglas) and ChatGPT’s suggestion is next to the green OpenAI/ChatGPT logo icon.

Yeo_trombone_essay_Chat_GPT

ChatGPT fixed my punctuation, removed my colloquial language, and gave my writing an air of sophistication. But it’s obvious that there are tradeoffs. It did not address my comment about a trombone player on Star Trek and one in professional wrestling. My little essay mentioned that the trombone was invented “a long time ago” but ChatGPT ignored that phrase and didn’t write about the trombone’s origins. When I wrote about “a trombone with buttons,” ChatGPT failed to recognize that I was referencing a valve trombone. Some of the limitations of what ChatGPT can do are obvious.

Let’s look at an established piece of writing, one that has been widely derided as “an atrocious sentence.” That judgment comes from many critics over the years, and it has even been enshrined in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, an annual contest where over 10,000 people vie to write a dreadful opening sentence. The contest’s title comes from the opening line of Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel (1830), Paul Clifford:

Lytton_dark_and_stormy_night_crop

The line was immortalized by cartoonist Charles Schultz in countless comic strips that featured Snoopy, who frequently appeared in panels where he was writing a novel (this. below, is the first such appearance, August 27, 1969):

Snoopy_dark_and_stormy_night

Actually, I’m not so sure this is a terrible sentence. It certainly is evocative. It is long, but that is part of what keeps the reader’s attention. The scene is very clearly described and when I read this sentence, I can feel the wind and rain against my window. Others may disagree, but I’ve always felt the criticism of Bulwer-Lytton’s opening line is a little unfair. I asked ChatGPT to improve on Bulwer-Lytton’s sentence. Here’s what I got:

Yeo_dark_and_stormy_night_ChatGPT

Is this really better? Gone are the evocative words—torrents, violent, rattling, fiercely, swept, scanty. One sentence has become three, the flow interrupted by periods. I don’t see this as an improvement; it lacks any true literary sense. It sounds stiff, generic, unimaginative, juvenile.

Next, I wanted to see what ChatGPT would do with a piece of excellent writing. I turned to an essay by Jacques Barzun, one of the great philosophers and scholars of the twentieth century (Barzun died in 2012 at the age of 104). I have admired his work for many years. Barzun wrote a major biography of one of my favorite composers, Hector Berlioz (Berlioz and the Romantic Century, 2 volumes, Atlantic Little, Brown, 1949), and it was Berlioz and the serpent that led to my having some memorable, personal engagement with Barzun. He was also known as a superb writer, and his essay about copy editors, “Behind the Blue Pencil: Censorship or Creeping Creativity?” (The American Scholar, Summer 1985, Vol. 54, No. 3, pp. 385-388), is a tour de force. Barzun opines, in his pithy prose, that copy editors often mangle an author’s intent as they try to “improve” an author’s writing. I thought I would ask ChatGPT to fix and improve two paragraphs from Barzun’s article. Here’s what I got:

Yeo_Barzun_1_ChatGPT

Again, I cannot argue that ChatGPT’s work is an improvement—on any level—on Barzun. The elimination of the phrase in scare quotes, “first-rate stuff but needs a lot of work,” is an egregious omission, but ChatGPT reorders words and offers substitutes for many words that eviscerate Barzun’s writing and make him sound like a middle school student who thought that using a few big, fancy words—like “proliferation”—would impress the teacher.

But there’s more, in this next paragraph by Barzun:

Yeo_Barzun_2_ChatGPT

The problems we see are obvious and herein lies one of the cautionary lessons for anyone who is hoping that AI will replace the need for an individual to think through both information and sentence structure. Every writer has an individual voice. When a copy editor (ChatGPT is, in one respect, a virtual copy editor) changes an author’s prose, it often comes out in the voice of the editor. The author’s voice is lost. ChatGPT’s editing lacks sophistication and it does not process irony or turns of phrases that make up interesting, engaging prose. Barzun’s superb writing—keep in mind that Barzun’s book, Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, is one of the great texts about writing style—has been reduced to the very kind of writing that he deplored.

While some commentators are praising ChatGPT as a tool to help students who struggle with writing to put together well crafted sentences, others see it as a dangerous, quick end around for a student to avoid doing research. In recent years, “I got it from the Internet,” is an answer that no teacher wants to hear from a student who is asked to justify a fact or assertion. But what if ChatGPT does the research for you and puts together paragraphs that are well structured, clear, accurate, and informative? This is the thing that is making many scholars, teachers, and commentators a little wobbly. What if AI will do your research for you?

While the idea of a computer writing text that sounds like was written by a human being is very impressive, the more important question is “How does ChatGPT get its information?” Putting together grammatically correct and natural sounding sentences is one thing. Putting together grammatically correct and natural sounding sentences that make sense is something very different. I thought I would go to the source. I asked ChatGPT:

Yeo_chat_GPT_information

There we have it. ChatGPT relies on “large datasets of text.” Where does it get those texts? The Internet, including publicly available books and articles. ChatGPT does not search the Internet when a user makes a query. Rather, it relies on huge databases of information gathered from the Internet that have been loaded into its database. It works from what it has been told. From there, ChatGPT puts together answers to questions and writes those answers in accordance with its own grammar and sentence construction algorithms. 

Do you see what I see?  I decided to ask ChatGPT to do my work, to answer some questions as if I was a student writing a paper.

First, I asked ChatGPT to write a history of the trombone. Any student would be disappointed that I only got three short paragraphs. But, have a look:

Yeo_trombone_history_chatGPT

The first problem, as every trombone professor will recognize, is the first sentence. Does it sound familiar? It should. ChatGPT, for all of its highly touted creativity and originality, begins its history of the trombone by lifting—let’s call it for what it is: plagiarizing—the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry on the trombone:

Wikipedia_trombone

If a student begins an assignment with this sentence, the result is guaranteed: a grade of F. But there are other obvious problems. To say that the trombone is an instrument that “[dates] back to at least the 15th century” implies that it might have been around earlier, in, say, the 14th century. But there is nothing in the historical record that implies the instrument we would recognize as a trombone was around in the 14th century (1300s). The third sentence says that the slide is used to “produce different notes” but there is no mention of the use of air, the embouchure, a mouthpiece, and how the embouchure changes shape when the trombone produces different notes. It is air AND the slide AND the embouchure that allow for production of various pitches. Was the trombone “originally used in outdoor brass bands and military ensembles”? No. The earliest known use of the trombone (“originally”) is traced to alta (loud instrument) bands from the fifteenth century that included trombones, trumpets, shawms, and bombards (a double reed instrument). These were hardly “brass bands.” ChatGPT states that the trombone was used in opera “in the 19th century” which is true, but we know that trombones were used by Claudio Monteverdi in his opera, Orfeo, that dates from 1607, the seventeenth century. ChatGPT gives the impression of presenting information with authority. But much of what it wrote about the history of the trombone is incomplete at best and untrue at worst.

I decided to ask ChatGPT to write the answer to a question I posed to a student on a doctoral (DMA) comprehensive exam when I taught at Arizona State University. I asked the student to craft lists of orchestral excerpts for a tenor or bass trombone symphony orchestra audition, then provide commentary on why these particular excerpts were selected. I asked for an audition list for a preliminary, semi-final, final, and final with section playing round, four lists in all. When I asked ChatGPT, this is what I got:

Yeo_trombone_excerpts_ChatGPT

This is rubbish. Pure, unadulterated word salad with no basis in truth. Whatever data was fed into ChatGPT’s databases about the use of the trombone in orchestral literature, AI put it together and came up with junk. ChatGPT obviously does not know a thing about orchestral excerpts for trombone. It all sounds very erudite and informed. But apart from the commentary about the Symphony No. 3 of Camille Saint-Saëns (yes, that symphony does have a “lyrical trombone solo that requires a player to have a strong sense of phrasing and warm, full sound”), there is not a single sentence in this answer that is based in fact. For instance: Not only is there no trombone solo that features legato, a good sense of phrasing, and musicality in the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, the trombones do not play AT ALL in that movement. There is no trombone solo in the second movement of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. The second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 does have trombones but there are no trombone solos. The first and second trombone parts have 33 notes each (the third trombone has 34) in the movement and none of them are soloistic. Likewise, there is no lyrical trombone solo in the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (that’s the waltz movement in 5/4 meter), and the second movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 contains two beautiful chorales for trombones and tuba, but there is nothing therein that could be characterized as “rapid, virtuosic passages.” ChatGPT didn’t know anything about the trombone in orchestral music and instead of telling me, “I don’t know,” it spewed out nonsense. 

Exhausted from making up stuff about trombone auditions, ChatGPT strained to create a list for a semi-final round. The black box you see in the screenshot above was blinking on my computer for several minutes as ChatGPT was “thinking.” The box finally stopped blinking and it was clear that no further answer was forthcoming. ChatGPT, like the Grinch who stole Christmas, “puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore.” Someone will paste this into an assignment and hand it in. Grade: F

I decided to take this further and ask ChatGPT some questions about other aspects of the trombone and how it was used. Here is another question I asked on a doctoral comprehensive exam when I taught at Arizona State University. I asked ChatGPT about the differences between the early trombone (sackbut) and the modern trombone:

Yeo_sackbut_trombone_ChatGPT

Once again, ChatGPT offers a combination of attractive appearing prose along with many factual errors. No, the trombone’s bell does not point upwards, nor does the inner slide move in and out (every trombone player knows it’s the outer slide that moves in and out). Of course, just moving the slide along isn’t the only way the trombone changes pitch—air and the embouchure are in play as well. When ChatGPT wrote the absurd sentence, “The early trombone had a single slide and the modern trombone has a double slide,” I had to ask myself, “Where did it get this information?” To which I followed up with this thought: “Someone is going to trust this nonsense.” (And I had another thought: We need more and better excellent research about the trombone. If ChatGPT is relying on currently available information, it needs better information. Much, much better information.)

I asked my friend, Trevor Herbert, one of the leading trombone scholars in the world (his book The Trombone is our instrument’s seminal book, and he received the International Trombone Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2021) what he thought of ChatGPT’s take on the early and modern trombone. Trevor said:

Students and their teachers should understand that the basis of proper historical narratives reside in the analogue world. It is not the job of AI machines to arbitrate intellectual authenticity.

So the bottom line is that we just plough on with what we do and try to make it is as good as possible. The accurate application of the semantic web as the basis of an imaginative tool is some way down the line. I would never use these sites nor recommend them.

I then asked ChatGPT another of my doctoral comprehensive exam questions, about the use of the trombone in various religious communities. ChatGPT produced a flowery commentary that sounds very impressive but is full of a remarkable number of errors of fact:

Yeo_trombone_in_religion_ChatGPT

Once again, ChatGPT displayed its inability to cobble together a coherent history of the use of the trombone in a specific context. No, Bach did not “often” write for trombones, nor are trombones used in his Brandenburg Concerti or orchestral suites. But it was when ChatGPT began to elucidate on the Moravian community’s trombone tradition that it got into quicksand and could not get out. I asked my friend Stewart Carter (professor of music history, music theory, Collegium Music, and trombone at Wake Forest University, and co-editor of the Historic Brass Society Journal), a leading expert on Moravian music and how trombones were used in Moravian communities throughout history, to comment on what ChatGPT wrote:

The ChatGPT “essay” on trombones in religious traditions and contexts, including but not limited to J. S. Bach and Moravian communities, is at best inadequate, and at worst, simply wrong. Yes, J. S. Bach did use trombones in a few of his cantatas to support the vocal parts, but he did not write parts for trombones in any of instrumental works.

As to the Moravians, the sect was not founded in what is now the Czech Republic in the 18th century. The renewed Moravian Church (Unitas fratrum) traces its origin to Saxony, where Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf invited Protestant refugees from Bohemia and Moravia to dwell on his estates in the Lausitz region, where they founded the town of Herrnhut. The Moravians used trombones in small chamber ensembles and large orchestras only rarely. In fact, the early Moravians almost never had “large” orchestras. I know of no Moravian anthems that employ trombones. The principal use of trombones in early Moravian communities was to announce deaths and important arrivals to the community, to support the singing of chorales, at a funeral. They occasionally supported the singing of chorales in worship services, particularly the Easter Sunrise Service and the New Year’s Eve Watchnight Service.

Much has been made about Chat GPT’s ability to generate computer code on its own. But AI’s understanding of scientific principles— of, say, trombone acoustics and how sound is produced on brass instruments—is another matter entirely. I asked ChatGPT to answer a question posed by a colleague who is a music history professor (most trombone DMA committees include the trombone professor, another music professor, and a music professor who is a music theory or music history teacher). I  included his question on comprehensive exams for doctoral students in trombone. The question references the acoustics of the trombone. Here’s the question and what ChatGPT wrote:

Yeo_trombone_acoustics_ChatGPT

On first glance, this gives the impression of being a very comprehensive, informed answer. But when I asked my friend, Arnold Myers, one of the world’s  leading experts on the subject of the acoustics of brass instruments (he is co-author, along with Murray Campbell, and Joël Gilbert, of The Science of Brass Instruments, ASA Press/Springer, 2022), to weigh in on ChatGPT’s understanding of trombone acoustics, Arnold took the essay apart piece by piece:Yeo_trombone_acoustics_ChatGPT_01

Arnold Myers commented: This is a bit misleading: blowing air through the instrument does not itself produce a sound, blowing is necessary solely to produce the lip buzz.

Yeo_trombone_acoustics_ChatGPT_02

Arnold Myers commented: This is correct, and important.

Yeo_trombone_acoustics_ChatGPT_03

Arnold Myers commented: The harmonic spectrum depends on the amplitudes of the standing waves of different frequencies rather than the positions of nodes and antinodes.

Yeo_trombone_acoustics_ChatGPT_04

Arnold Myers commented: This is misleading: the bell flare is important in the radiation of sound and the timbre, but it does not amplify the sound. The bell does not add energy, it lets some of the energy of the standing waves escape.

Yeo_trombone_acoustics_ChatGPT_05

Arnold Myers commented: Smaller bells are often more flared and less cylindrical (as in the French trombone).

Yeo_trombone_acoustics_ChatGPT_06

Arnold Myers commented: It would be hard to define ‘focused’ or ‘concentrated’. The sound of a trombone played loudly has a very wide range of harmonics, containing frequencies extending up to and beyond the limits of human hearing, certainly not “narrow.” So does the sound of a french horn played loudly. It is the euphonium sound that has a more limited range of harmonic content.

Arnold Myers had a few more comments as well. It’s not enough that ChatGPT has something to say. It’s also important to note what it does not say:

Several important considerations are omitted. These include:
 
A. The internal sound levels very high, reaching 140-150 decibels in fortissimo. The bell is selective, transmitting the high frequencies (a high pass filter) but reflecting most of the low frequency energy (necessary to build up standing waves).
 
B. The timbre of the trombone depends on the dynamic level of playing. At low frequencies the timbre is mellow with little high frequency content, but at high dynamics a significant proportion of the sound energy is converted from low frequencies to high as sound waves travel from mouthpiece to bell (nonlinear propagation of sound). This results in the inevitable brassy sound (cuivré) at high dynamic levels (whether the player wishes it or not).
 
C. The standing waves are strong enough to influence the vibration of the player’s lips. The buzz is shaped partly by the player’s voluntary muscular control and partly by the standing waves. This is experienced as ‘slotting’.
 
In conclusion, Arnold offered this observation:
 
The reply to your question is well worded and comes over as authoritative, but it is not informed by the state of the art knowledge of brass instrument behaviour. If this had been turned in by one of my masters students, it would have received rather a low mark, not quite a fail. Quite a lot is correct, but important things are wrong (or missing). It gives the impression of being based on reading 50-year old books.
 
I then turned to another subject that interests me. I asked ChatGPT to discuss the serpent, the serpentine shaped musical instrument that I have played since 1994. Among many other uses from at least 1590, the serpent was used in small groups of instrumentalists in nineteenth century England where they accompanied the singing of Psalms and other music in rural parish churches. In 2011, I wrote an article about English author Thomas Hardy and how he wrote about the serpent in many of his works.
 
So, I asked ChatGPT about the serpent and how it was used in west gallery bands in churches in rural England in the nineteenth century. Here’s what ChatGPT came up with:
 
Yeo_serpent_west_gallery_ChatGPT
This is more nonsense. No, the serpent is not similar to a tuba. It predated the tuba by over 200 years, it has a shape that could never be confused with a tuba, and it’s played with a mouthpiece roughly the size of a small trombone mouthpiece. Nobody can argue that the serpent is “easy to play.” And the serpent is not played “by winding a long, coiled brass tube around the player’s body.” The serpent is made of wood, not brass (apart from a short brass bocal and brass keys that appear on some serpents), and it is held in front of a player, not coiled around a player’s body. Further, ChatGPT completely missed how Thomas Hardy writes about west gallery bands in many of his novels, including Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) where he pays the serpent a crowning compliment:

Old things pass away, ’tis true; but a serpent was a good old note: a deep rich note was the serpent.

I decided to send my question about the serpent and ChatGPT’s answer to my friend, Clifford Bevan, for his take on all of this. Cliff literally wrote the book about the tuba and its predecessors (like the serpent), The Tuba Family (Faber & Faber, 1978; second edition, Piccolo Press, 2000). Not only is he a superb scholar and performer (on tuba, serpent, and ophicleide), he has a great sense of humor and an unsurpassed wit. Here’s what Cliff said about ChatGPT’s essay on the serpent:
 

I’m sure you must have had the occasional response to your blog in the way that I have to The Tuba Family, where someone has totally misunderstood something I’ve written to the extent of it’s very often having been taken as meaning totally the opposite of what’s intended. It can be very discouraging when you’ve tried your best to use clear and simple language. Our ChatGPT shows evidence of behaving like this someone. So, paragraph 1:

“serpent, a brass instrument.” My Webster has “brass . . .1. consisting of or made of brass.” All these years I’ve been under the impression a serpent’s almost always wooden, but then again . . .

“relatively inexpensive and easy to play.” Not that I’ve noticed—difficult to get your fingers round and all but impossible to pitch accurately. (Though maybe ChatGPT is an octopus with perfect pitch?)

Paragraph 2. Not the early 16th century: the late 16th century.

“The serpent was played by winding a long coiled brass tube around the player’s body.” You, boy, that chorister—roll up the sleeves of your cassock and grab the ends of this brass tube, that’s it, carefully. . . Now keep tight hold and walk carefully around me, holding it tightly. When it’s totally round my body don’t forget to cut me free otherwise I won’t be able to eat my dinner . . .

Paragraph 3. This is the real gem. ChatGPT has read somewhere that Thomas Hardy (was he the big fat one or the small thin one, by the way?) refers to the serpent in his novels. The only one Chat has seen wasn’t actually in a form that required reading but simply watching the screen, and this was Tess of the D’Urbevilles, so he has had to fit the serpent into this. All this symbollically stuff is nonsense. What Hardy does in no fewer than four short stories and, particularly in Under the Greenwood Tree which is based around a village band, is describe (very accurately) the way in which the serpent was used in such a band. (By the way, unusually there is no mention of a serpent in Tess – I’ve checked.)  If Chat was really serious about symbolic serpents he could have referred to a much earlier book called The Holy Bible, specifically the chapter of Genesis, where the symbolic serpent really comes into its own.

Paragraph 4. I think the “important symbol” bit has been demonstrated to have been written about long before the nineteenth century.

So how would I grade this answer? It would be too cruel to grade it. I would take it along to my head of department with a request that he might send ChatGPT along to the school psychiatrist for assessment as this student is completely unable to benefit from my tuition owing to impaired mental faculties.

 
Finally, I turned to another subject I know well. In 2021, my friend, Kevin Mungons, and I published a new book with University of Illinois Press, Homer Rodeheaver and the Rise of the Gospel Music Industry.  Readers of The Last Trombone know about this book, and I wanted to see what ChatGPT knew about a subject that Kevin and I have spent decades researching. Kevin is also an editor for Moody Publishers. He works with authors every day and he has an editor’s eye for good (and bad) prose. What would AI say about Rodeheaver when it searched its massive databases? Here’s what ChatGPT said:
 
Yeo_Rodeheaver_ChatGPT
 
Kevin and I have been talking about this for a few days, and we went around and around on this, with my asking ChatGPT the same question several times, worded slightly differently each time. Kevin commented:
 

On the upside—the AI writing sample demonstrated good grammar and mechanics. The AI engine knows and applies basic punctuation, spelling, capitalization. The paragraph structure develops an introduction, exposition, and conclusion. Honestly, it’s cleaner than most college writing, or for that matter, most business communication. Give the technical elements an A.

Scored by various methods, the college-level paragraphs are moderately difficult to read. A good editor would fix the long sentences, the over-reliance on “to be” verbs, and the zombie nouns. The paragraphs are also wordy and repetitious (131 repeated words in a 260-word sample)—sounding like college students padding their word count. So give the reading comprehension a B-minus (allowing for grade inflation), but there’s a more obvious flaw—it’s boring. And no one reads boring, not even college professors (who claim to read student papers but really only skim).

Accurate content? Not so good. ChatGPT claims that Rodeheaver traveled with the evangelist Gipsy Smith (he didn’t), gives the wrong date for the founding of Rainbow Records (1920, not 1911), and says Rodeheaver wrote “hundreds” of songs (maybe 30, tops). When I asked Doug to try a more generic prompt (“Write about Homer Rodeheaver”), ChatGPT wrongly reported that he was born in Indiana. Another iteration asserted that Rodeheaver published Gospel Hymns No. 1–6 (an Ira Sankey hymnal, not Rodeheaver).

These factual errors are oddly authoritative and precise. Very few readers will recognize the name Gipsy Smith—it sounds so fantastic and exotic that it must be true, as does a very specific (and very wrong) claim about an 1894 hymnal.

As a followup, Kevin asked me to ask ChatGPT to write something about Rodeheaver based on a question had a mixture of factual and fictional information. Many commentators are breathlessly arguing that ChatGPT and other AI programs will soon be able to write college papers. But what if a student asks ChatGPT to do something that, unbeknownst to the student, is flawed from the start? What if the request for ChatGPT to write an essay has, as its premise, misinformation? What if the question itself contains an impossibility? Kevin submitted a question and I put it into the ChatGPT program. Here’s what happened: 

Yeo_Rodeheaver_postcards_ChatGPT

Obvious errors abound, such as the assertion that Rodeheaver was born in Indiana (he was born in Ohio). And there’s still that spurious claim that Rodeheaver started Rainbow Records in 1911 (he founded the label in 1920). But Kevin’s new request to ChatGPT was infused with several obviously false claims. ChatGPT did not recognize this. ChatGPT’s answer, therefore, is hilariously funny—and so very wrong. ChatGPT could have said, “I cannot answer this question.” But it didn’t. It answered it by making up stuff. Making up outrageous stuff. Kevin summarized his thoughts on this through the lens of his skills as an accomplished teacher, researcher, writer, and editor:

Suspecting AI’s inherent flaw, I deliberately constructed a new writing prompt that asked about Rodeheaver’s career as a violinist and his famous collection of postcards (both claims wildly untrue). Sure enough, ChatGPT returned glowing paragraphs claiming “Rodeheaver played the violin…for various churches and evangelistic campaigns throughout the United States.” Then comes a whopper, ChatGPT claiming that Rodeheaver’s (nonexistent) postcard collection “was one of the largest and most comprehensive in the world…valued at over $50,000.”

Yes, fact checking gets an F here, but not just a zero marked in red at the top of the paper. This level of duplicity earns the student a slow walk toward the dean’s office.

What’s my point? At the exact moment that we’re buried in fake news, social media lies, and pseudo research from Wikipedia—at the exact moment we need more truth—we get pure fabrication burnished with academic jargon. And breathless news reporters who think it’s good.

ChatGPT has not yet overcome the original problem with computer programming: Garbage In, Garbage Out. For these new AI writing engines, a bad or imprecise query still yields unusually bad answers. And if you don’t know the answer, make it up.

How will teachers know when a student is using AI? For now, there’s one obvious tell—a pronounced gap between flawless mechanics and abysmal content. That’s not how it works in real life, where bad student writing is consistently bad—mechanics, research, fact checking, execution—all bad. In the olden days, teachers could spot plagiarism because of one jewel-like paragraph shining from a pile of dreck. That hasn’t changed. Given a long enough writing sample, the AI content is still pretty obvious.

While media gush about ChatGPT, even OpenAI Inc.’s founder Sam Altman, recognizes the limitations of ChatGPT:

ChatGPT is incredibly limited, but good enough at some things to create a misleading impression of greatness. It’s a mistake to be relying on it for anything important right now. It’s a preview of progress; we have lots of work to do on robustness and truthfulness.

Well, that is a truthful and honest statement. Will AI improve over time? Of course. But will it ever replace the human mind, and the unique style of individual authors who have shown, throughout history, the remarkable ability to find and put together the right words? I don’t think so.

As Bern Elliot, a vice president at Gartner (a technology research firm), said when he recently summed up the current state of ChatGPT in an article on CNBC:

ChatGPT, as currently conceived, is a parlor trick. It’s something that isn’t actually itself going to solve what people need, unless what they need is sort of a distraction.

At the top of this article, I included a screenshot and link from Steven Marche’s article, “The College Essay is Dead.” As I conclude this essay, have a look at this headline, from an article by Gary Marcus in Scientific American:

 

ChatGPT_Sci_Amnerican

Marcus concludes his article with this insightful observation about ChatGPT and other AI programs:

Large language models are great at generating misinformation, because they know what language sounds like but have no direct grasp on reality—and they are poor at fighting misinformation. That means we need new tools. Large language models lack mechanisms for verifying truth, because they have no way to reason, or to validate what they do. 

“They have no reason to reason, or to validate what they do.” Despite the current cultural intoxication with AI, there is still—and there will always be—a place for human beings, we who have a soul and a conscience, we who live and act and breathe in the reality of space and time and experiences, and who are made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27).  

The end of writing? That gives ChatGPT way too much credit. ChatGPT is neither the answer to life nor an agent of doom. Keep studying, keep honing your craft. You are better than ChatGPT. When approaching artificial intelligence, Caveat emptor.

 

Job opening: Trombone Professor, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Job opening: Trombone Professor, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

by Douglas Yeo

Readers of The Last Trombone know that in the summer of 2022, I accepted a one-year position as Clinical Associate Professor of Trombone at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The University’s previous trombone professor abruptly retired in late May 2022 and the School of Music did a search to hire a trombone professor for the 2022–2023 academic year while the University decided how to move ahead with the trombone professor position. I was very happy to accept that position to help out the University during this time of transition. I’ve just finished my first semester working with my students at Illinois, and I am already looking forward to the spring 2023 semester when we will continue contending in various ways to change the world with trombones in our hands.

Through my hiring interviews and regularly throughout the fall semester, I’ve made my view on the trombone professor position at UIUC very clear: In order to grow the trombone studio, the University and its students would be best served by hiring a full-time, tenure track trombone professor who would be fully committed to all that is required to operate, grow, and maintain a world-class university trombone studio. Given the financial challenges that Universities are facing these days along with recent trends in hiring, it was not a given that UIUC would commit to a tenure track trombone professor position. Happily, after many meetings and discussions between faculty and administrators, University of Illinois has just announced a search for a full-time, tenure track Assistant or Associate Professor of Trombone, effective on August 16, 2023.

This search will be chaired by Professor Jim Pugh, Professor of Jazz Trombone and Composition/Arranging at Illinois. Screening of applications will begin on January 20, 2023. I’m writing this article in an effort to help get the word out so our search will attract the most committed, talented, and inspirational pool of candidates for the position. Click HERE to see the job posting and requirements at it appears on the University of Illinois website. I’m also pasting the announcement below.

If you are reading this and are qualified and interested in the position, please consider applying. And please send this announcement to anyone you know who is a transformative teacher and performer who would be interested in working at a world-class School of Music at a premiere University (Illinois is a member of the Big 10 Conference), alongside superb faculty colleagues and with hard-working, engaged students. To get a sense of the great things happening at the University of Illinois School of Music, visit our website at music.illinois.edu.

Here are a few photos (below) of my trombone teaching studio at UIUC, Music Building 3040. Since I am only teaching there for one year, the room is lightly decorated, but you can get a sense of the size (the room is well lighted with a window, and is corner room on the third floor) and some of what I have there to work with (Baldwin baby grand piano, music stands, desk and chairs, HEPA air purifier, cabinet; other office supplies can be furnished on request). You can see a poster on the wall that contains my three–part philosophy of teaching—STEWARDSHIP, EXCELLENCE, and MISSION—my three–part way of implementing this philosophy—PAY ATTENTION, ASK QUESTIONS, TRY EVERYTHING. And on the poster you’ll see the logo I had designed for our studio by my good friend, Lennie Peterson. Of course Abraham Lincoln played the trombone, and he was an Illini. You knew that, right?  Finally, my office would not be complete without a photograph on the wall of my teacher, Edward Kleinhammer, as well as many reminders of our part as members of the Illinois community. 

This is an exciting day for the University of Illinois Trombone Studio. I am committed to helping this search in any way I can  (although I am not a member of the search committee) and I look forward to supporting and cheering on the next full-time trombone professor at Illinois. Go Illini!

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Music Building 3040 (Trombone Studio), University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

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Music Building 3040 (Trombone Studio), University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

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Music Building 3040 (Trombone Studio), University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

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Assistant/Associate Professor of Trombone

Tenure-Track

University of Illinois

College of Fine and Applied Arts

School of Music

Urbana, Illinois, United States | 1014474

See this job listing at: https://illinois.csod.com/ux/ats/careersite/1/home/requisition/2402?c=illinois

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign School of Music invites applications for an Assistant or Associate Professor of Trombone. This is a tenure-track position to begin August 16, 2023.

Located on the campus of one of the world’s leading research universities, the University of Illinois School of Music is a center for creativity and collaboration through performance, research, and education. Historically rich in tradition, the School of Music is a resource for music research of all kinds, and offers bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees to its nearly 700 students in many different fields of study. Hosting a diverse population of faculty, students, and staff, the School of Music embraces cutting-edge innovation and discovery while providing an array of musical and engagement opportunities within the artistic and educational communities of Urbana and Champaign. Please see www.music.illinois.edu/ for information regarding the University of Illinois School of Music.

Responsibilities:

Teach undergraduate and graduate trombone students in all degree and diploma programs, including weekly lessons for each student, a weekly trombone studio class, and graduate-level trombone literature and pedagogy classes; additional teaching responsibilities will be based on the candidate’s other area(s) of expertise. Maintain a professional career as an artist/teacher and/or pursue music research appropriate to a Research I university; pursue an active recruiting program that includes building relationships with universities, national organizations, and schools and private teachers statewide. Work with the Wind, Brass, and Percussion faculty to expand engagement opportunities in Illinois school systems to nurture young performers and assist with School recruiting efforts. Actively participate in all events and programs where the visibility of the University of Illinois faculty can serve as an asset for recruiting and/or student success and morale. Service responsibilities include committee work and other activities that benefit the School and its students. Success in teaching and recruitment, professional creative activity and/or research, and service will be evaluated as part of the tenure process.

All employees of the School of Music are also expected to embrace the following core ideals:

  • Demonstrate a commitment to building and sustaining a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment, one that reflects the entire State of Illinois.
  • Support the University of Illinois’ dedication to being a community of care.
  • Demonstrate a commitment to student success and well-being through both teaching excellence and broader mentorship.
  • Seek out opportunities for collaboration with colleagues both on and off campus, and both within and across disciplines.
  • View recruiting and retention, particularly of members of underserved communities, as fundamental to the position and to the School’s success.
  • Work as a cooperative member of the School’s community and serve as a model of integrity and collegiality.
  • Exhibit passion for your work, the School, and the role of music in our society.

Required Qualifications:

  • Artist/Teacher with an emerging or established national reputation as a performer and/or pedagogue.
  • Successful teaching experience at the university level.
  • Knowledge of pathways by which students discover the instrument and demonstrated experience attracting, recruiting, and retaining undergraduate and graduate students, particularly those from underrepresented populations.
  • Evidence of clearly defined secondary area(s) of expertise, such as music entrepreneurship, community engagement, pedagogy, musicianship, chamber music, health and wellness, or music history.
  • History of engagement with diverse audiences, collaborators, knowledges, and traditions with respect to race, gender, and class.
  • History of engagement with works by BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and women composers, including new pieces from living composers.
  • Experience performing and teaching multiple musical styles, including both classical and jazz.
  • Master’s degree in music or commensurate experience.

Preferred Qualifications:

  • Orchestral experience.
  • Chamber coaching experience.
  • Classroom teaching experience at the university level.
  • Demonstrated record of student placement and success.
  • Facility with new technologies and platforms for recording, creating, and distributing music.
  • Evidence of an innovative research profile that engages with performance.
  • Doctoral degree in music.

Application Procedures:

Interested candidates should submit an online application at https://jobs.illinois.edu.  Application materials should include:

  • Letter of interest, including a section that provides 3-5 hyperlinks or URLs for representative online audio or audio/video files of recent live or recorded performances (please do not include links to entire websites or collections of videos).
  • Curriculum Vitae.
  • Diversity and inclusion statement, including relevant experience reaching underserved communities and vision for the social role of music in the 21st century.
  • Names and contact information of three references.

Screening of candidate applications will begin on January 20, 2023, and will continue until suitable candidates are identified for the position. Please direct any questions to Prof. Jim Pugh, Search Committee Chair (jimpugh@illinois.edu) or Jennifer Steiling, Sr. Human Resource Associate (steiling@uillinois.edu). Women, racial and ethnic minorities, individuals with disabilities, and veterans are encouraged to apply. For questions regarding the application process, please contact 217-333-2137.

Thankful for farmers

Thankful for farmers

by Douglas Yeo

Today is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. George Washington, in his Thanksgiving proclamation of October 3, 1789, reminds us what this day is for:

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness,” now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—that we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks.

There is much for which we can be thankful. Last night, my wife and I went to a Thanksgiving Eve service at our church, New Covenant Church of Naperville, Illinois. About halfway through the service, we sang a hymn that I have sung more times than I can count, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.”

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Last night, the hymn had new meaning for me. Because this year, I am especially grateful for farmers.

Each Wednesday since the end of the August, I have gotten up early in the morning to drive south to Urbana, Illinois, where, for the 2022–2023 academic year, I am serving as Clinical Associate Professor of Trombone at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I’ve made this trip 13 times this semester, a 159 mile, nearly three hour long drive. After two days of teaching at Illinois, I get in my car again and make the same drive home. When I first mapped out my drive, I made a decision. I could have taken interstate highways all the way from our home in the Chicago area to Urbana. Interstate 355 to 55, then 57 all the way to Urbana. But I on that first trip in August, I decided to try something different. I decided to take the back roads through the cornfields.

The decision was, as I first thought it through, a pragmatic one. Interstate highways are fast, fast roads. Speed limits mean little on interstates. A speed limit of 60 or 65 miles per hour means many—if not most—people are driving 70 or 75. Or faster. I thought the drive on back roads would be more peaceful. Fewer trucks, less noise, and perhaps I could take in a nice view along the way. I wasn’t prepared for what happened.

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The view on Illinois 115 near Cabery, Illinois, August 22, 2022

On my first drive south on August 22, I turned off Interstate 55 to Illinois 31, the first of several state roads with a posted speed limit of 55 mph that took me straight south from the Chicago area to Urbana. State Routes 31, 18, and 115. 55 miles an hour, that is until I came across a small village (which happened several times) when the speed limit dropped to 40 mph for a minute while I passed a village with a population of 250. Or fewer. There certainly were fewer trucks on the road. In fact, there were NO trucks. In fact, there were no cars, either. I had the road completely to myself. So much so that I stopped in the middle of the road and snapped this photo, above. And you can see what I saw for hours: endless cornfields.

In August, the corn was high. And as far as my eyes could see, I saw thousands of acres of corn. Corn that went on to the horizon and beyond. I was fascinated by the endless stalks of corn, gently undulating in the breeze. I saw farmhouses and silos that dotted the landscape. As the weeks went on, I witnessed the ritual that’s done by farmers around the world: harvest. Massive pieces of farm machinery appeared in the cornfields. Stalks were cut down, and the corn was separated from its husks and shot into huge trucks. In recent weeks, with the fields shorn of their stalks, I’ve seen new pieces of huge equipment plowing the fields. The fields will lay fallow until the spring when I will see another ritual: planting. And the cycle will go on again, just as it’s been going on since the first humans walked the earth. The hymn reminds us that this cycle applies to us as well:

First the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear.

Lord of harvest, grant that we, wholesome grain and pure may be.

These drives through the cornfields—I have two more trips to campus this semester before the Christmas break and then I will repeat this driving ritual next semester—have given me a new appreciation for farmers. Farming is hard work. I never thought about how much time it takes to harvest hundreds and hundreds of acres of fields. Now I do. It’s not a one day job. And farming requires a lot of trust and faith. These fields rely on the rain that God showers down from the sky. The right balance of sun, heat, and rain means a bountiful harvest. When that balance is off, the harvest is compromised. Farmers trust, hope, and pray.

I also have thought about these farmers and how I have a relationship with them. One way or another, their corn finds its way into the global food cycle. I have certainly eaten food that has been made, either directly or indirectly, with the fruit of their land and the work of their hands. And every now and then during my long drives through the cornfields, I see a sign stuck in the ground that offers a simple message, lest we forget:

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Today, on Thanksgiving day, my oldest daughter, her husband, and our two grandchildren will come over to our home for our annual Thanksgiving dinner. We’ll be joined by some friends from church. There will be laughter in the house. We’ll watch some of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, something we do each year since I marched in that parade with the McDonald’s All-American High School Band on Thanksgiving Day, 1972. Later, we’ll have a football game on television in the background as we wait for the food to be ready. Then, days of preparation and cooking will culminate in a moment when we sit around the table with a feast before us (with three pies—blueberry, apple, and pumpkin—waiting their turn in the kitchen). It is a feast that I have been reliving each year since my earliest memory, a feast I suppose I’ve always taken for granted (with gratitude to my mother, mother-in-law, wife, and daughters who have done so much over the years to prepare the feast). We will look at this bounty before us, we will hold hands, bow our heads, and I will pray. I will pray and thank God for the many blessings He has given to us over the last year. I will thank God for His faithfulness through the year, through the cheerful days and through the storms of life. I will thank him for church and school and work and love and life. And I will thank Him for farmers who do the back-breaking work that puts the food on our table. Backbreaking work that most people never see.

I’m very glad for my weekly drives through the cornfields in Illinois. Because today, these words have new meaning for me:

Come, ye thankful people, come. Raise the song of harvest-home:

All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.

God, our Maker, doth provide, for our wants to be supplied:

Come to God’s own temple, come—raise the song of harvest-home.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends. We have so much for which we can be thankful. And before you put a fork to your mouth today, thank God for farmers.

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The view along Illinois 115 near Piper City, Illinois, November 22, 2022.

An award for “Best Historical Research”

An award for “Best Historical Research”

by Douglas Yeo

Readers of The Last Trombone know that last year, University of Illinois Press published a book co-authored by my friend, Kevin Mungons, and me. The subject of the book is Homer Rodeheaver, the trombone-playing song leader for the evangelist William “Billy” Sunday for twenty years during the first third of the twentieth century. Rodeheaver played the trombone for over 100 million—yes, million—people during his lifetime (1880-1955) and he profoundly shaped the course of gospel music. Rodeheaver created the first gospel music record company (Rainbow Records), and he founded what was, at the time, the largest and most successful Christian music publishing company. His influence, nearly 70 years after his death, is still felt today.

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Above: Billy Sunday and Homer Rodeheaver, 1917. Courtesy of Morgan Library, Grace College, Winona Lake, Indiana.

Our book has received many enthusiastic reviews , including one in the October 2022 issue of the International Trombone Association Journal:

Kevin Mungons and Douglas Yeo have collaborated on a scholarly, nuanced biography of Homer Rodeheaver. Mungons and Yeo’s book, Homer Rodeheaver and the Rise of the Gospel Music Industry, combines painstaking research with insightful sociological and musicological analysis. Although the book is co-authored, it has a unified narrative. The extensive citations, alone, are worth the price of purchase. Even if one has only marginal interest in Homer Rodeheaver as a person, this scholarly description of American society at the turn of the 20th century proves fascinating and illuminating.

And this one from Christianity Today in March 2022:

Like virtually all books in the University of Illinois’s much-honored Music in American Life series, Homer Rodeheaver and the Rise of the Gospel Music Industry fills in significant blanks in our understanding of different aspects of music history. Mungons and Yeo elevate their contribution with meticulous detail and research; a penchant for finding fascinating, revealing stories and anecdotes; and a sparkling, highly readable prose style that’s all too rare in most academic books.

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Last week (October 12), we learned that our book has just received a major award. The Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) gives annual awards “to authors of books, articles, or recording liner notes to recognize those publishing the very best work today in recorded sound research.” This is a highly coveted award, one with major significance to the large community of individuals who are heavily invested in understanding and promoting the history and preservation of recorded sound. ARSC publishes a peer-reviewed journal and its 2022 Awards for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research include books on a wide variety of musical styles and genres written by highly respected authors.

Our book received the “Best History” award in the category for Best Historical Research in Recorded Blues, Gospel, Hip Hop, Soul, or R&B. The award will be presented to Kevin and me at the ARSC Conference that will be held in Pittsburgh in May 2023. We are very grateful for this recognition.

Between now and October 31, our publisher, University of Illinois Press, is offering a 50% discount off the cover price of the book. Click on this link to the UofI Press website’s page on books that have won awards in 2022. You’ll find our book there. Click on the image of the cover and you’ll be directed to UofI Press’s page about our book. You can order the book there. Put in the Promo Code MAL50 and the cost of the book will go from $31 to $15.50. That’s a real money savings. But this offer expires on October 31; now is your chance!

ARSC Award graphic