I was first published at age four, read the entire Nancy Drew series before kindergarten, joined the school newspaper in middle school, at age 10 was the only child in an adult writer’s guild working on a novel (and horrified everyone with my gruesome murder stories).
I moved on to competitive journalism and creative writing in high school, co-founded the Undergraduate English Association in college, and graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in English Literature.
Universities are ending English as a major
All of the above is to illustrate that I have a wildly biased view of English majors.
So it would not surprise you to learn I was shocked that schools like Marymount and St. Mary’s in Minnesota were eliminating English as a major, and others are in talks to nix entire English departments.
My dismay is not simply because future graduates won’t validate my own life choices and feed my ego by sharing a major.
No, the dismay is at what this tells the world – communication no longer matters.
And isn’t the timing marvelously perfect as writers around the globe chew their fingernails to the quicks, worrying that the dark cloud of artificial intelligence (AI) has finally found them and that ChatGPT will soon replace them (and probably eat their souls)?
For those just catching up, I promise the tools are not just novel toys, but legitimate business tools, just like the launch of Google as a search engine was a tool. It doesn’t replace, it augments.
But that’s in it’s current form, which is amazing at bangin’ out outlines, editing, and tweaking, but when you ask it to write a blog post, for example, it sounds like you hired someone offshore for $5 (you wouldn’t call it bad or good, just OFF).
I’m at an intersection about this
I find myself at this unique intersection where one direction I see myself on a typewriter in an off-grid cabin, furiously word slinging my way into a weird novel, while in the other direction, I am obsessed with technology and finding new and interesting ways to use tools like ChatGPT to augment my existing work.
Another intersection I find myself at is how incredibly innovative AI has become in a short period, and how threatening it could be to mankind, but that’s another editorial for another day.
Cutting English studies couldn’t be timed more poorly
So here we all are – AI went mainstream this year, even your mom has heard about it, and universities are annihilating English departments. I want to tell you why the timing couldn’t be worse.
Have you heard the job title “prompt engineer” yet? It’s already a six-figure job:
Wow – Anthropic (Google's latest $300M AI investment) is hiring a "Prompt Engineer" for $250k-$335k/yr + equity
No CS degree required, just have "at least basic programming and QA skills"
Wild times. pic.twitter.com/4i1sEWs5iZ— AI Breakfast (@AiBreakfast) February 14, 2023
Luminaries like Sam Altman (CEO at OpenAI, the company that developed ChatGPT) are pondering prompt engineering:
writing a really great prompt for a chatbot persona is an amazingly high-leverage skill and an early example of programming in a little bit of natural language— Sam Altman (@sama) February 20, 2023
Another tech CEO aptly responded:
True- writing to Ai's will accelerate the upcoming of "coding in English "— Nick Milien (@nmilienceo) February 20, 2023
(No, the irony is not lost on me that this tweet could use a little bit of that English major TLC – it proves my point.)
It’s 2023. We all blinked, and prompt engineering (aka prompt writing or prompt creation) is already a high-paying job title. Altman tips his hat to the skill it takes to write them. Yet English departments are disappearing.
Are you seeing the disconnect here?
Let me illustrate the power of prompt engineering
The tools I’m most enjoying today are:
- ChatGPT (by OpenAI): An AI language model for natural language processing. Type in a prompt like “Tell me 3 facts about Montreal,” and it generates a single human-sounding response instead of a search engine which lets you choose from millions of results.
- Bard (by Google): I asked this tool, “please describe Bard in under 10 words to a layperson,” and it said, “Google AI-powered large language model,” which isn’t super helpful to all readers but it is similar to ChatGPT – type a prompt, get one result that sounds human.
- Midjourney – this AI text-to-art tool is so powerful that the free version had to be shut down since people really thought the Pope was wearing a puffer vest or Trump was in cuffs.
Prompt engineering is just the words used for getting bots to create a result you have in mind. It’s easier to illustrate visually:
Right now, I want you to imagine you’re sitting down to Midjourney for the first time, and you have a specific image in mind that you want it to generate. Maybe you want an image for your blog of a programmer.
You might type in “computer programmer at a desk.” Here’s what you would get:
But that’s not exactly what you had in mind, and none are the right dimensions. You wanted someone that looks more like you (maybe hispanic) and less bored, and it should be wider than taller.
So you try “happy hispanic computer programmer, sitting at a desk in a beautiful office –ar 3:2.” You’re keeping the wording simple as you learn what the tools can do (and “ar” just means “aspect ratio” so you can get the dimensions right).
That’s way better, and looks less like someone hacking space objects from a basement. And it almost got all of the hands right! But you’re hoping for a more specific look.
You try “happy hispanic computer programmer, sitting at a desk in a broody stylish office, ultra realistic, 135mm, –ar 3:2 –stylize 1000,” because you remember that was a lens in a photography class you audited 80 years ago, and read that “–stylize 1000” gives you a bit more granular control.
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. You like the one on the bottom left, so you select that one to “upscale.” You then toss it into your photo editor, warm it up a bit, get the proper cropping, and voila, you’re a happy camper.
This extremely simplified version of prompt engineering is why folks are saying the following:
The hottest new programming language is English— Andrej Karpathy (@karpathy) January 24, 2023
What if you had to do this with words instead of images?
If you’re a marketing professional, you’ll play with ChatGPT to perhaps generate CTA (call to action) alternatives, to make an email sound more casual, generate consumer survey questions, or fine tune blog post titles.
But that is where the English major powers come in – copywriters are paid well because they can not only write skillfully, but because they can look at what you’ve written or what a bot has written, and immediately know if it is good or not. Bots still can’t do that.
Fast forward to this week, and you might have heard that ChatGPT and now Bard can both do some coding for you (it’s made the rounds in meme land).
This is where prompt engineering gets tricky.
You can teach someone English, but without subject matter expertise, they won’t know if the answers generated by the bots are worth anything.
In the above example, you’d have to know some basics like aperture, or perhaps even art styles, and little “tricks” to alter dimensions – just typing in “computer programmer” doesn’t read your mind, you still have to put in info and the more specifics you feed the AI, the better the results.
But let’s say you are asking ChatGPT to do some coding for you, and you’re not a coder. You ask it to create a widget for your WordPress site that can scroll the current average for gas prices in three cities.
It immediately burps out a bunch of code. You look at it and think “neat!” and add it to your site. Your site is now broken, womp womp.
You (and I) don’t have the acumen to be able to look at that result with understanding, but a coder would have seen the first answer and told ChatGPT to try again because it’s calling the wrong thingamabop to the wrong thingamajig.
ChatGPT would say “I am sorry, you are correct,” and generate another attempt at code that would work. But a coder would see that it is still going to throw errors, so it tells ChatGPT what tweaks to make, and the code will now work. But it may take several tries.
Subject matter expertise will be required for prompt engineering. But so will creativity, critical thinking, and a mastery of language.
So I formally declare that we stop lamenting the end of English majors and begin celebrating how valuable that major will be in coming years!