Columns

Hillestad ’15: Down with the writing requirement

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Opinions Columnist

I’m a writer, so naturally, I believe that an adequate command of the English language is an essential prerequisite for success. The ability to communicate effectively can make or break your career ambitions. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, what phenomenal code you can write, or how much work you’re willing to do — if you can’t put together a proper sentence, you aren’t going to go very far in life. But even I think Brown’s writing requirement has to go.

It started off as an experiment. Its intentions were good. But even the best scientist admits when an experiment goes wrong. And there is widespread agreement that the University’s foray into requirements has gone unequivocally wrong.

Unbeknown to most Brown students, the writing requirement has actually been around since the inception of the New Curriculum back in 1969. But it went unenforced for decades, and it wasn’t until very recently that the University began to take the requirement seriously again.

In 2007, the lax enforcement of the writing requirement first came under scrutiny. The push for greater enforcement was led by then-Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron. Ironically, she conceded that Brown students’ writing proficiency needed no improvement. She said, “I’ve taught at a lot of places, and I’ve really enjoyed reading the papers of my Brown students more than at other places.” But if Brown students were such good writers, why would Bergeron suddenly put a spotlight on the writing requirement? It seems like enforcement for the sake of enforcement. But at some point, we have to stop blindly accepting the writing requirement as a given.

Back then, The Herald reported that more students thought all undergraduates had satisfied the writing requirement than those who didn’t. In other words, students generally thought that “competence in reading and writing” had been achieved without an enforced writing requirement.

But what about now? I would venture to guess that the enforcement of the writing requirement has hardly affected the competency of our writing at all. Will taking two measly courses that may or may not place a special emphasis on writing really teach you how to write?

Students view the writing requirement as a box to check off. If you care about learning to write, you’ll go out of your way to take a course with papers. And if you don’t care, then you’re probably not going to get a lot out of a writing course. It would be a wasted class. You could have taken something you were actually interested in, but instead, the University stepped in and told you what to take. That’s about as anti-Brown as you can get.

Moreover, courses are designated as WRIT seemingly at random. Should PHIL 0500: “Moral Philosophy” really count as a WRIT course and not PHIL 0990: “Moral Psychology,” even though they’re both taught by the same professor in the same department? Many writing-intensive courses mysteriously don’t count as WRIT courses, while some students take WRIT courses without ever knowing it. In my experience, the WRIT designation is slapped on arbitrarily.

And speaking of arbitrary, why should we single out writing as the only skill worthy of a requirement? Is writing somehow a more fundamental skill than math? If Brown were to institute a math requirement, the humanists would be up in arms.

While writing is undeniably integral to learning, strikingly similar arguments can be made about math. And about logic. And research skills and public speaking and so on and so forth.

All these skills are important. But not all Brown students want to learn them, and certainly not all Brown students need to. To force them into preconceived notions of what is and what is not important is at odds with the Brown ethos. At Brown, you can handcraft your own education. If you don’t think writing is an important skill, I may disagree with you, but I won’t force you to take a writing course. And the University shouldn’t either.

But to stop there would be unfair to Brown. The University still has requirements through concentrations. Students here don’t get to customize their education with no regard for boundaries. That would be utter chaos. So no, we don’t always know what’s best for us. Sometimes, we need a little help. Through concentration requirements, departments can determine what skills — including writing — should be learned.

In place of the writing requirement, departments should have the autonomy to decide whether or not writing is important enough to their respective discipline to justify a requirement. Concentrations like English or philosophy or history are inherently writing-intensive, and thus would naturally have mandated writing courses.

But the hard sciences may also see writing as an important skill. After all, if a scientist can’t communicate his or her findings without resorting to senseless jargon and messy phrasing, then the significance of the experiment may be lost. So perhaps the hard sciences should consider having a writing requirement within concentrations.

On the other hand, it’s possible that a student can get a perfectly adequate education in computer science without ever taking a writing class. They can learn to write masterful code, but if the department doesn’t think writing essays is also important, so be it. And if computer science students disagree, then they should have the freedom to take a writing course.

So while the writing requirement as it stands should be abolished, that doesn’t mean we should go back to the previous laissez-faire model. Rather, we still have to carefully consider what place a writing requirement should have at Brown. The University-wide writing requirement has to go. But in its place, the departments should be able to decide whether to have writing as a concentration requirement. This is a compromise that would eliminate the arbitrariness of the current model and replace it with a system that puts power back in the hands of the professors and students. Especially at Brown, that’s the only place power should ever reside.

 

 

Sam Hillestad ’15 won’t make you learn writing if you won’t make him learn linear algebra. He can be reached at samuel_hillestad@brown.edu.