As an English teacher with an interest in technology, I often find myself straddling two seemingly disparate worlds. On one hand, I’m devoted to the timeless wisdom found in classic literature. On the other hand, I’m excited by the rapid advancements in generative AI and their potential to reshape our world. For years, I’ve grappled with how to reconcile these two passions in my classroom.

Enter Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – a novel that, despite its age, speaks directly to our current technological moment. Did you have the same experience as I did? Despite my warnings, at the end of the year I had multiple papers turned in that were written by AI. To me, writing everything by hand is a band-aid to keeping students from cheating, not helping them work through why they shouldn’t cheat. As I watched my students navigate the complexities of generative AI tools like ChatGPT, I realized that Shelley’s cautionary tale about the ethics of creation and innovation has taken on new urgency.

This realization led me on a journey to reimagine my Frankenstein unit for the AI age. My goal? To equip my students with the critical thinking skills they’ll need in a world where AI is becoming increasingly prevalent, while also deepening their appreciation for the enduring power of classic literature..

In this post, I’ll share how I’ve woven together Shelley’s timeless narrative with contemporary AI ethics, creating a unit that not only engages students but also prepares them for the technological challenges they’ll face in the future.

The Spark of Innovation

Just as Victor Frankenstein was inspired to create life, my reimagining of this unit was sparked by the rapid advancements in AI technology. The ethical dilemmas in Frankenstein eerily mirror our current debates about AI development and implementation. This parallel was too powerful to ignore.

Unit Overview

This 3 week unit deep dive into Shelley’s world challenges students to wrestle with the ethics of innovation. Here’s how it breaks down:

  1. Daily AI Narrative: Each class begins with an installment of “Prometheus,” a story about a generative AI that goes rogue. This narrative mirrors the progression of Frankenstein, ending each day with a cliffhanger that keeps students engaged.
  2. Ethical Frameworks: Students apply ethical frameworks to both Frankenstein and the “Prometheus” narrative, encouraging them to think critically about the consequences of unchecked innovation.
  3. Word Choice and Characterization: Throughout the unit, students track the connotations of words like “fiend,” “monster,” and “daemon,” analyzing how language shapes our perception of characters and concepts.
  4. Journal Prompts: Regular journal entries encourage students to draw connections between the parallel narratives and reflect on the ethical implications of both stories.
  5. Panel Discussion: The unit culminates in a role-playing panel discussion where students embody various perspectives: ethicists, scientists, Victor Frankenstein, the Creation, and others.

By introducing a parallel story about AI, we’re able to:

  • Demonstrate the enduring relevance of Frankenstein to the ethical challenges students face today
  • Explore the real-world implications of rapidly advancing technologies
  • Examine the consequences of misusing generative AI in educational contexts
  • Encourage open conversations about how AI is impacting students now

In addition to the daily story and journal prompts, mid-unit we will have a role playing activity where we discuss how the scenario has unfolded. Here’s my plan:

Setup: Divide the class into groups of 5-6 students. Each group will represent a different stakeholder in the Prometheus scenario. Assign the following roles within each group:

  1. Prometheus User: A student who has been using the AI for assignments
  2. Non-User Student: A student who suspects others are using AI unfairly
  3. Teacher: Concerned about academic integrity but also interested in innovation
  4. School Administrator: Responsible for school policy and student welfare
  5. Parent: Worried about their child’s education and future prospects
  6. Tech Company Representative: Creator of Prometheus, advocating for its use

Scenario: The school has called an emergency meeting to address rumors of an AI system being used by students. Each stakeholder must present their perspective and concerns.

We will then take these discussions and compare them to the different stakeholders of Frankenstein.

Navigating the Middle Ground: Ethical Dilemmas in Literature and Technology

A primary focus for this unit is on the ethical dilemmas that arise when pushing the boundaries of innovation. This approach helps to bridge the gap between 19th-century literature and 21st-century technology, encouraging students to think critically about the implications of scientific advancement.

Parallel Ethical Landscapes

One of the aspects to this unit is how it draws similarities between Victor Frankenstein’s ethical struggles and those faced by modern AI developers. 

We explore:

  • The responsibility of creators for their creations
  • The potential consequences of unleashing a powerful new entity into the world
  • The balance between scientific progress and ethical constraints

By drawing these parallels, students begin to see how literature can provide a framework for understanding and discussing current technological dilemmas.

Developing Ethical Frameworks

Since my focus is on decision-making and helping students discuss consequences, a crucial part of this unit is introducing students to various ethical frameworks, giving them language to discuss different approaches, and helping them apply these to both Frankenstein and current AI scenarios. 

  • Utilitarianism: Weighing the potential benefits of Frankenstein’s creation (or AI) against its risks
  • Deontological ethics: Discussing whether there are certain lines that should never be crossed in scientific pursuit
  • Virtue ethics: Examining the character and motivations of Victor Frankenstein and relating this to the intentions behind AI development

By applying these frameworks, students learn to approach ethical dilemmas systematically, a skill that will serve them well beyond the classroom.

Encouraging Personal Reflection

Throughout the unit, I will use journal prompts that encourage students to reflect on their own ethical stances. Questions like:

  • “If you had the ability to create artificial life, would you? Why or why not?”
  • “How do you think AI should be regulated, if at all?”
  • “What responsibilities do you think creators have to their creations?”

These prompts help students connect the themes of the novel to their own lives and developing worldviews.

Preparing for an Ethically Complex Future

Ultimately, this approach to teaching Frankenstein is about more than understanding one novel or the current state of AI. It’s about equipping students with the ethical reasoning skills they’ll need in a world of rapid technological advancement. 

By the end of this unit, my aim is for students who are better prepared to:

  • Identify ethical dilemmas in scientific and technological developments
  • Consider multiple perspectives on complex issues
  • Articulate and defend their own ethical positions
  • Understand the far-reaching implications of innovation

As we navigate this middle ground between classic literature and cutting-edge technology, we’re fostering a generation of thoughtful, ethically-minded individuals ready to grapple with the complex questions that continued AI development will inevitably raise.

Looking Ahead with Generative AI

Will this work? I don’t know. But, what I do know is that at the end of the unit we will have fully discussed my expectations and also my stance on generative AI and for why they should make good choices. 

Everything is moving quickly – it’s crazy to think about even where we were this time last year.

Also, through this lens students will truly understand the tension, Frankenstein serves to investigate. My hope is that this unit not only deepens students’ appreciation for Shelley’s prescient novel but also equips them with the critical thinking skills needed to grapple with the ethical implications of rapid technological advancement.

Frankenstein Meets Generative AI: Revamping a Classic for the Digital Age

2 thoughts on “Frankenstein Meets Generative AI: Revamping a Classic for the Digital Age

  • July 3, 2024 at 3:27 am

    Hello Danielle! I am wondering about the “Prometheus” story you mentioned. I did a bit of digging, and there are so many hits for “Prometheus” and “AI” — but they lead mostly to articles (soooo many non-fiction options!). Do you mind sharing more information about the story you plan to use? I teach a “general” Sophomore English that is World Lit focused, and Frankenstein (imagine italics) is one of my favorite novels. I haven’t taught it in years, and probably won’t this coming year, but I am considering making a choice unit about the risks and responsibilities of breaking ethical boundaries — and I think the AI element would be a great addition that could tie our reading together.

    Thanks for sharing this work you are doing. I follow you on IG as well and find your work really inspiring because it balances engagement with critical thinking skills so well. It never feels like fluff.

    Best wishes,

    • July 7, 2024 at 7:34 pm

      Hi Amy! I actually wrote it…or I co-wrote it with AI, actually. I’m happy to share what I have – it’s a brief paragraph for each day to set up the scenario and then a sentence or two cliffhanger. My plan is to supplement with news articles of breaking news about AI related to the scenarios.

      Thank you so much for the comment and for hanging out on IG!



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