University News

Frosh will need to show writing skills

By
Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010

Seniors will have to “show evidence of their writing” in order to graduate, beginning with the class of 2013, Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron will announce Thursday.

“All students are expected to work on their writing both in general courses and in their concentration,” Bergeron wrote in an e-mail to be sent to students Thursday. Sophomores will have to reflect on their writing in their concentration forms, according to the letter.

The changes come out of recommendations from the Task Force on Undergraduate Education, Bergeron told The Herald. Based on the findings of an external review and discussions with faculty and academic committees, the College Writing Advisory Board and the College Curriculum Council collaborated on a new, clearer delineation of the expectations of writing at Brown, she said.

Bergeron’s letter ends with a statement on writing, explaining why it is an important skill for all graduates. “Writing is not only a medium through which we communicate and persuade; it is also a means for expanding our capacities to think clearly,” she wrote.

More resources for students

Starting in the fall, a new designation will be added to some Banner course descriptions. The designation, WRIT, signifies that the course helps students work on their writing process. There are about 200 courses that qualify for the designation for the fall semester across most of the disciplines, Bergeron said. The University wished to make writing courses more “visible,” she added.

In the letter, Bergeron asked members of the class of 2013 to take advantage of the Advising SideKick, an advising tool with a portfolio function, to upload examples of their best work throughout their four years at Brown.

This semester, concentration declaration forms were changed to include a new question asking students to talk about the writing they have done at Brown and how they intend to continue working on it in the upcoming semesters, Bergeron said.

Students can still be flagged for poor performance. The University is bringing back the “writing check,” a tool professors used at the end of the term to signal that a student needed to work on his writing. Before the Banner system was implemented, the check would be added to paper grade reports, said Kathleen McSharry, associate dean of the College for writing. In the intervening time, professors could still report students, but that would have to be done with an e-mail to a dean, she said. Now, Computing and Information Services has worked to implement the check on Banner, she said.

McSharry said she received between 30 and 90 checks per year, though she said she believes that number decreased during the period following the implementation of Banner.

Incoming problems

First-years can also be flagged based on the letters they write to their advisers prior to arriving on campus, or more rarely, based on their application materials or official communications with the University, McSharry said.

In the class of 2013, 35 students were flagged based on their letters to advisers, McSharry said. In general, the majority of flagged students are either speakers of English as a second language or graduates of “under-resourced” high schools, said Douglas Brown, director of writing support programs and adjunct lecturer in English. Those students are encouraged to work on their writing by their advisers and are monitored by McSharry’s office for evidence of progress, she said.

In courses, students can work on their writing by taking one of the nonfiction writing classes offered by the English department or one of the WRIT-designated courses, McSharry said.

Students also have the option to be paired with a Writing Fellow who will work with them throughout the year on papers for any of their classes. Brown, who heads the Writing Fellows program, said he thought the ongoing relationship with a graduate student at the Writing Center would be particularly helpful to struggling writers. The portfolio of a student’s progress throughout the year should be “encouraging” evidence of improvement, he added.

Excellence at Brown, a pre-orientation program focusing on writing skills, is growing in demand, Brown said. Last year, 150 people requested places for the program, which can only hold 50, he said. He added that he hopes the program will be able to increase its size this year.

These resources are important in setting up students for success, Brown said.

The importance of writing

“Good writing is essential to learning,” according to the statement on writing from the College Curriculum Council included at the end of Bergeron’s letter. “Across the disciplines, scholars, teachers, and students write to explore ideas, uncover nuances of thought, and advance knowledge,” the statement continues.

Writing is a “means of expanding the capacity to think” that can “bring great cognitive gains,” Bergeron said. With the implementation of the writing requirement, “good writers are going to become better, and weak writers are going to become better,” she added.

“Writing really is important to liberal learning,” Brown said. If a student is not writing well, it is probably an indication that he is not learning well either, he said.

McSharry said the University wants writing to be a “holistic experience” at Brown, done in a wide range of undergraduate courses. Administrators wanted to create “a campus-wide discourse” and ensure that writing is on faculty and students’ minds, she added. The new structures will primarily look at first- and second-year students, which is necessary because the University lacks any general education requirements, she said.

Professors outside the disciplines typically perceived as writing-intensive agreed about the importance of writing.

“We want people to be able to write competently,” said Professor of Computer Science Andy Van Dam. It is “almost an unchallenged belief” that an ability to communicate effectively orally and in writing is necessary for success, he said.

Jan Tullis, professor of geological sciences, supervised a Group Independent Study Project last year for science concentrators interested in writing. She said she enjoys “coaching students to get practice” writing, both generally and in their fields. Being clearer writers also means being clearer thinkers, she said. Writing not only communicates ideas to others, but helps the writer understand one’s own thoughts, she said.

Students were less enthusiastic. Celina Pedrosa ’11 said she was not clear on exactly what the writing requirement meant. As an international relations concentrator, she said she has taken writing-intensive classes anyway, but was never pointed in that direction by a faculty adviser.

James Witkin ’10 said he differentiates between the writing requirement in theory and in practice. In practice, it is difficult to enforce, he said, adding that he does not believe people who take no writing courses would ever get “caught.” Brown students are also likely to be good writers because they were accepted to the school, he said.

A historical requirement

Brown’s writing requirement dates back to the late 1800s, McSharry said. It was the only distribution requirement to live through the shift to the New Curriculum in 1969.

In the past, the requirement has been enforced only if a student was flagged for lacking writing competence either in application materials or by a professor based on course performance. Students were “innocent until proven guilty,” Bergeron said.

McSharry said even after the implementation of the New Curriculum, students who were flagged were required to take a remedial writing course.

But that model was not in line with the spirit of the requirement, Bergeron said.

The new statement on writing reflects a shift from a deficit model to a “plenitude model,” Bergeron said. The writing requirement should not be thought of in “polic
ing or punitive terms,” Brown said. It should be a “value-added experience,” McSharry said.

The inherent difficulty in enforcing the writing requirement would, at many colleges, result in a required course in writing. But requiring a course would violate the principles of Brown’s open curriculum, administrators said.

In discussions with faculty about writing at Brown, “no one was interested in adding a course requirement,” McSharry said. It would bother her, she added, to have a requirement on the books that would “mean nothing” to students, who would take the course simply to get it done. Advising can help to encourage students to explore other areas and to take risks, but in the end, “students make their own final choices,” she said.

Witkin said there were a few other kinds of subjects he thinks students should explore, but added he would be leery of adding them as requirements because they would require specific courses, leading to the destruction of the core principles of the New Curriculum.

The writing requirement is much less obtrusive given that there are so many courses that involve writing, he said.