New Honors Bornander Chair tackles ethics of ChatGPT

Samantha Noll standing in a classroom speaking to students.
Samantha Noll, associate professor in the School of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs, teaches a class. She is the newly appointed Elma Ryan Bornander Honors Distinguished Chair. Photo by Bob James.

When students in Samantha Noll’s Honors College course on philosophy and technology raised the issue of ChatGPT and academic cheating, she knew she had to address it.

Noll, associate professor in the School of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs, is the newly appointed Elma Ryan Bornander Honors Distinguished Chair. Recipients are outstanding WSU faculty at the forefront of research, pedagogy, and scholarship, and spend two years in residence at WSU’s Honors College developing courses and teaching and mentoring students. 

Teaching for honors

ChatGPT, the AI program introduced late last fall, caused widespread concern among educators at all levels. Capable of scouring the Web and compiling information, it produces plausible essays even at the college level. Noll had her students ask the chatbot itself about the dangers it might pose and discuss their findings. “One of the things I love about teaching a class on technological innovations is that they’re coming fast and furious and have huge impacts on what we do.”

Noll designed her course around another technology with profound impact, the cellphone, using it to illustrate philosophical concerns about outsourcing mental capacity. 

“Socrates worried that if we used writing as a crutch to put down all of our stories, we would no longer have the capacity to create or remember them,” Noll said. “Fast forward to today and we still confront the question of what capacities we want to outsource.”

To help address this issue, Noll turns to the Extended Mind Theory of current philosophers David Chalmers and Andy Clark who argue that technologies like smartphones have essentially become extensions of our minds. “Lose your phone, and your contacts, pictures, and navigation tools are gone,” said Noll. “It’s like you are literally unplugged from a part of your capacity.”

She is also designing a new honors course on food movements or on philosophy of food and agriculture, using the plate as her starting point. “Philosophy can be very abstract and even intimidating for students,” Noll said. “Using something they are incredibly familiar with like their phones or the food on their plates provides a touchstone to begin thinking philosophically about our lives.” 

Research funding

The endowment provides salary enhancement and research support for the recipient. Noll’s highly interdisciplinary research focuses on philosophy of food, environmental ethics and emerging technologies. Her work has been published in dozens of peer reviewed journal articles and book chapters, and in two co-authored/edited books. Her next book “What should I eat?” will focus on the ethical omnivore movement. Based on a pluralist food ethic, it recognizes the importance of honoring thoughtful, diverse food choices.

“This is about producing food in more sustainable, thoughtful ways that improve animal welfare, soil health, etc. without necessarily taking anything off the plate so to speak,” Noll said.

Catalyst for student support and community outreach 

The endowment also supports Honors College students working with the recipient. Noll is planning a public-facing project with students called “Philosophy Eats,” examining food-related issues from humanities perspectives. It will include a journal of short, publicly accessible articles on timely food-related issues and a podcast featuring guest speakers. “I want to use this as a platform to share the work we’re doing with the public,” she said.

“Samantha is an exceptional scholar, teacher and author, and the Honors College is delighted to bring her into our classrooms and help support her research through this endowed chair,” said M. Grant Norton, Honors College dean.

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