University News

Changed requirement calls for second WRIT course

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Despite an email last March from Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron describing changes made to the University’s writing requirement, many students remain unaware of the new policies. 

The changes, which apply to the class of 2015 and beyond, require that students take an English, comparative literature, literary arts, Writing Fellows or WRIT-designated course within their first four semesters at Brown and upload proof of the course’s completion to the Advising Sidekick website. In their next four semesters, students must take another approved course or upload proof of writing improvement “by another means,” according to the email.

The idea of a University writing requirement has persisted “for as long as writing has been called out as an important part of a liberal education,” Bergeron said. Developing “nuanced communication skills” is an invaluable part of a college education, she added.

“All along, we’ve had a writing requirement in place, but we have not clearly articulated how it’s implemented and what it actually means,” said Douglas Brown, director of the Writing Center and the Writing Fellows Program.

In 2008, the Task Force for Undergraduate Education found the existing requirement insufficient. Before the College Curriculum Council changed the requirement last year, professors gave students whose writing they found substandard a writing check on their internal transcript. In order to graduate, those students had to set up individual plans with the director of the Writing Center, Bergeron said. 

The writing check system is still in place, but the new requirements ensure all students will work on their writing in both the first and second halves of their college careers, Bergeron said. With the new requirements, students who fail to take a writing course in their first four semesters will also receive a writing check.

Even before the change, Bergeron said the University’s goal was to ensure students worked on their writing, both in general and within their concentration. But without language that was “explicitly chronological,” students were not necessarily meeting these goals.

She said the CCC decided to make the first half of the requirement course-based after receiving input from students. 

Though many students said the requirement’s goals are worthy, sophomores in particular feel as if the changes were not adequately explained. Several added that the timeline of implementation did not give them enough time to fit the requirement into their schedules.

Sam Davidoff-Gore ’15 said he thinks that because writing is a universal skill, the requirement is a useful part of the curriculum. “If it’s one more thing I have to worry about, then it’s one more thing I have to worry about,” he said. “If people really complain, they aren’t looking at the real world.” 

But he added that he had not heard of the change to the requirement and had not talked it over with either his faculty advisor or his Meiklejohn. “It’s kind of annoying that they sprung it on us,” he said. 

As an engineering student, Brandon Taub ’15 only takes one elective each semester. This fall, he was excited to take POLS 1120: “Campaigns and Elections,” but to satisfy the requirement he is now taking five classes and may have to drop the political science course. 

“It’s really anti-open curriculum to say I can’t take this course I want to because I have to take this writing class,” he said.

Taub said he took a first-year seminar last year that required two 10-page papers, but it did not receive the WRIT designation. Had he known about the requirement at the time, he said he would have taken one with the designation instead. 

“I think it’s a reasonable idea if they had explained it to us when we matriculated freshman year as opposed to after two semesters,” Taub said.

He tried to petition the Committee on Academic Standing to add the WRIT designation to the FYS he took, but they would not hear his case until October. 

Currently, faculty members specify whether their courses should be WRIT-designated before it goes through standard course approval processes, Bergeron said. A subcommittee of the CCC then reviews its syllabus to see if students will receive feedback on written work and have opportunities for revision throughout the course before granting it the designation.

This semester, 147 classes were classified as WRIT, including five courses in biology, five in engineering, three in environmental science and five in geology. The number of available writing courses upholds the philosophy of the open curriculum, Bergeron said. 

But several students said they had taken non-WRIT designated courses that required far more writing than ones with the designation. Eight out of 64 history courses, five out of 36 philosophy courses and nine out of 31 political science courses are writing-designated.

Faculty members are aware of the designation, but more heavily publicizing the changed requirement and WRIT designation would be useful, Bergeron said. The council should also examine older courses to see if the WRIT designation should be added, she said.

Douglas Brown said the University is working to encourage even more faculty members to designate their courses as writing-intensive. 

Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin P’12, former chair of the English department, said he likes that the requirement makes faculty members across departments responsible for teaching writing.

Jonathan Schear ’15 said when he took a WRIT-designated course, he received a lot of useful feedback on his papers from his teaching assistant, but that other people in the course had less positive experiences. Sometimes WRIT-designated courses work effectively, but other times they seem to merely serve as a check to see if students can write proficiently, he said. 

Like Schear, Caleb Weinreb ’15 said he does not believe WRIT designation is an effective system. Students can easily pass a WRIT-designated course without improving their writing, he said. The policy forces students to spend a few days writing several papers, but that does not guarantee they will be able to write well by graduation, he said.

This year, the CCC will start to examine whether the changes have proven effective, Bergeron said. The council will see how many students have actually completed the requirement and might also take feedback from current sophomores into account, she said.&nb

Determining whether students have actually become better writers as a result of the requirement is more difficult, she said. “That’s worth thinking about,” she said.