Students, administrators doubt efficacy of U. writing requirement

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Fewer than half of Brown students believe all undergraduates fulfill the University’s English requirement, which mandates “competence in reading and writing,” a recent Herald poll found. Many see the current requirement, which is being reviewed by the Office of the Dean of the College, as toothless.

44 percent of students polled agreed that all undergraduates satisfy the requirement, while 38 percent disagreed. 18 percent either didn’t know or didn’t answer. Conducted from Jan. 29 to Feb. 2, the poll has a margin of error of 4.7 percent with 95 percent confidence.

The writing requirement does not currently have any curricular enforcement mechanism. When professors record students’ grades at the end of each semester, they can indicate that a particular student needs to work on his or her writing by putting a check in a particular column. These data are compiled by the registrar and sent to Rhoda Flaxman, director of College Writing Programs.

Flaxman then sends out letters to students who received “writing checks.” The first check is merely advisory, intended as a warning that the student’s writing needs to improve. If a student receives a second writing check, they are required to meet with Flaxman to work out a plan to improve their writing skills.

Associate Dean of the College Kathleen McSharry, who will assume responsibility for the writing requirement on July 1, said, “The writing requirement is amorphous – we have no real objective measure. We don’t have sufficient evidence that all students are meeting this requirement.”

Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron said there is concern about the writing requirement from “many quarters” and that student writing deserves attention.

“I think we could afford to expand the options available to students, beyond the many rich options we have in the English department and the literary arts department … and those classes that have Rose Writing Fellows,” Bergeron said. “There might be another layer that we could add onto this.”

The current system of writing checks on grade logs will end when the registrar begins using the Banner software system, which cannot track writing checks. There is not yet a specific plan for a new system that will work with Banner to tracking students’ writing proficiency.

Developing a new system “is a necessity,” said Douglas Brown, director of the Writing Center. “Nobody’s going to argue that (the current system) has been effective.”

Currently, the dean of the College’s office and the provost’s office are involved in two efforts to re-evaluate the writing requirement. Provost David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98 and Bergeron recently announced a Task Force on Undergraduate Education, which will review the college’s curriculum over the next year and prepare for reaccreditation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Part of the charge of this task force is reviewing the writing requirement, Bergeron said.

Bergeron also convened a committee composed of Brown, Flaxman and McSharry to explore writing at the College. Though the role of the committee is not strictly defined, Flaxman said she sees its task as generating ideas for larger meetings in the dean of the College’s office and with the College task force.

The goals of the committee are “broader” than just finding a way to implement the old writing check system with Banner, Brown said. But each of the committee members rejected the idea of a specific curricular requirement.

“We’re looking for something we can do that will be compatible with Brown’s openness and open curriculum,” Flaxman said. “We’re not interested in being police, but rather giving students many, many more opportunities to work on their writing, in courses and outside courses.”

McSharry said her immediate goals for the new writing requirement are to establish a baseline understanding of students’ writing when they arrive at Brown and to identify deficiencies before the end of a semester and earlier in students’ academic career. She said her office will begin tracking students’ scores on the writing portion of the SAT to determine if it can be used as an indicator of writing proficiency.

McSharry said a summer reading assignment with an essay to hand in to academic advisers has also been proposed so the dean’s office could start tracking students’ skills earlier. McSharry did not say whether this change is likely.

As for current Brown students’ proficiency in writing, administrators were generally positive. “I’ve taught at a lot of places, and I would say that I’ve really enjoyed reading the papers of my Brown students more on the whole, collectively more, than at other places,” Bergeron said.

Flaxman’s comments were less enthusiastic. “I think that it’s very hard to judge (students’ writing) based on the response to the writing requirement because only a percentage of the faculty use the requirement,” she said. “I think that there are students at Brown who don’t really take enough classes that include enough writing in them, so these students can slip through the system and not be identified as needing work on their writing.”

Rafael Rincon ’08 agreed with Flaxman’s assessment and was unsurprised by the results of the Herald poll. “Of course I know people who don’t fulfill the writing requirement,” he said. “There are a lot of people who just take all science classes and actively avoid anything with writing.”

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