Faculty Stories: Timothy Henningsen

Timothy Henningsen

Program: English


At the beginning of 2023, College of DuPage English Professor Timothy Henningsen welcomed his class to the brave new world of artificial intelligence.

College essay and research writing basically changed overnight with the introduction of ChatGPT. Instead of discouraging the use of AI, Henningsen has embraced it as a tool for students—along with a healthy dose of care and skepticism.

“In general terms, AI is a system that can replicate real human text that is polished, professional and persuasive,” he explained. “The first time you see it, you think ‘This is great.’ But then you see it for what it really is: flawed, questionable and suspect.”

He lists the advantages of AI as giving students ideas, offering templates for various writing genres and providing examples of how to structure writing. He also urges students to pay attention to the inherent flaws of AI.

“AI is outdated, can be unreliable and just plain wrong sometimes,” said Henningsen, who also teaches honors English. “Its reference database cuts off in September 2021, so you’re not getting a reflection of contemporary discourse or events.”

However, the platform is shifting at breakneck speed. A week after making this statement, Henningsen explained that ChatGPT users can now access OpenAI, allowing the viral chatbot to access data beyond its earlier cutoff date.  

Henningsen’s concerns mirror those of industry leaders, including some AI creators who have called the technology an existential threat to humanity. While AI has the ability to spread misinformation and perhaps eliminate some jobs, it can also create new career options and serve as a teaching device.

In short, Henningsen said, it’s evolving.

“I am transparent with students and tell them to use AI but also check facts and review AI-generated text carefully. Students have found problems with it as they are developing information literacy skills.”

Although Henningsen admits to AI’s limitations, he acknowledges its value as an educational tool. Students can use ChatGPT as a basis for the different writing styles they will need to examine, like resumes, analysis and college essays, and then personalize the assignment. While AI can provide information and structure, students provide the context and authentic voice.    

For example, one of Henningsen’s traditional class assignments is to write an analysis of a novel, website or film.

“Students do online research for their writing assignments, so AI should be a part of that. I have students ask ChatGPT to do the analysis and then they have to evaluate how well—or not—ChatGPT did. They are learning critical thinking skills as well as writing skills.”

Adding technology to the classroom is a natural fit for Henningsen, who began his career in information technology. Unenthused with his chosen field, he returned to his interest in reading and writing. 

“I took a graduate class on Postcolonial Caribbean literature out of boredom and quickly realized that academia fostered my curiosity and exposed me to new ideas,” he explained. “I set out to become an English professor.” He earned both a master’s degree and Ph.D. in Transnational Caribbean literature and enriches his lessons with writing exploration and tech tools. 

Can students cheat with AI? Henningsen said that is a danger, but he can tell the difference between an artificial voice and an authentic human voice. He also knows that students who are passionate about learning are curious and engaged and, therefore, do not need a shortcut to learning. 

“Students value learning,” he said. “They are preparing for careers and gaining knowledge by communicating, understanding rhetoric and context. AI is there to help but not to do it for them.

“This technology is not going away; it’s only going to get more ubiquitous. We need to teach students how to use it appropriately.”

Learn more about the English program at College of DuPage