Columns, Opinions

Douglas ’20: Dear Bruno, how do I write good?

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, January 23, 2020

Many undergraduates believe that they are strong writers; they got into Brown based partially upon their ability to write better than over 90 percent of other applicants, confirming their writing prowess and signaling that their craft need not be improved much further.

In reality, that is often far from the truth. Student writing is frequently riddled with basic grammatical errors, confusing organization and shaky logic. I’ve seen this while reading dozens of my own pieces and hundreds from my peers while editing for this newspaper and serving as a teaching assistant. I am not claiming to be a better writer than my peers. In fact, some readers will likely even believe that these same flaws apply to this article! While some undergraduates come into Brown as very strong writers, many enter the University without the necessary skills or tools to improve them. Disturbingly, many do not even improve their writing during their time here. From first-years to seniors, students are often weak writers because they aren’t taught well. When they are taught to write, they are frequently given little or no feedback. Instead of the current weak WRIT requirements, Brown should create three requirements: a basic required writing course for first-years, a senior thesis and instructor feedback for all written assignments.   

The University believes that the two required WRIT courses — which are offered in nearly every discipline and are the only restrictions on the oh-so-holy Open Curriculum — force students to improve their writing while maintaining maximal student freedom. However, that freedom undermines the purpose of the requirement in the first place. Though the Brown Curriculum notes that a WRIT-designated course must “provide students with substantive feedback on each writing assignment,” often this does not occur in practice. The WRIT requirement has become so broad that some of the classes that meet the mark reduce the standard to a joke. It’s a stretch to see how classes such as CHEM 1450: “Advanced Organic Chemistry,”  NEUR 1600: “Experimental Neurobiology” or PHYS 1600: “Computational Physics” teach students to master the skills necessary to write well. Such classes require so much dedication to the specific subject material that it can be difficult to also focus on improving writing. They require relatively few written assignments, and feedback comes from professors who often have more experience focusing on their own field than on the craft of writing itself.

After taking these upper-level classes, students are often left with deep subject expertise but no improved writing ability. While domain-specific writing such as lab reports may teach students how to structure writing relevant to a specific field, it neglects a more basic skill that is applicable across every domain: how to form an argument and provide evidence in its favor. Even if the course is ideally structured and enables students to write at an expert level in their own domain, they can easily leave these classes without the ability to transfer that skill to other types of writing — something they will almost certainly have to do throughout their lives. For example, a dedicated academic computer scientist who takes a CS WRIT class will be dramatically unprepared to write grant proposals, research summaries, cover letters and dozens of other forms of argumentative writing.     

Furthermore, many WRIT-designated classes are massive, which makes it nearly impossible for professors to provide high-quality feedback on each assignment. In Fall 2019, more than a dozen WRIT classes had more than 50 students enrolled, and seven had more than 100 students. In these large classes, professors often turn to teaching assistants to grade assignments. While TAs can provide substantive comments on papers, they simply do not have the breadth of knowledge or broad perspective that a professor does. Relying on teaching assistants to grade writing assignments does not provide the quality of writing feedback a WRIT course should entail.

Instead of the current WRIT requirements, the University should require students to take an introductory writing course at some point during their first two semesters. The course wouldn’t teach the difference between “which” and “that,” nor would it limit its domain to the five-paragraph essay. The class would focus on crafting an organized, unique argument in different genres, from short stories to lengthier academic pieces. It would require students to edit their peers’ work and read examples of exceptional writing in multiple formats, from brilliantly worded newspaper articles to succinctly organized academic proposals. It would emphasize the importance of varied sentence structure and grammar. Each class would be capped at 20, giving professors the time to grade each assignment without the help of a teaching assistant and allowing them to form personal relationships with their students.

The early requirement would allow students to strengthen their writing from the start of their University experience, which would enhance their academic experiences later on. As science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler said, “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it.” The current requirement does not give students this essential early exposure, given the limited feedback students often receive in WRIT courses and the relative flexibility students have in fitting these courses into their four years at Brown.

While a writing mechanics course would promote a significantly higher quality of writing for all undergraduates, the requirement would contradict the freedom of the Open Curriculum and therefore undermine one of the University’s hallmark attractions. Nonetheless, Brown should be willing to consider revising this element of the Open Curriculum. Writing quality has often been sacrificed in our experiment of near-complete academic freedom.

The University should still stress writing after students fulfill the initial requirement. Brown should require all students to complete a thesis in their final academic year, modeled off of Princeton’s thesis requirement. While doing so would have numerous benefits, the most important is the exceptional quality of writing required to put together such a substantial project. Writing a thesis allows students to write about a novel concept in the context of work that has preceded them. It gives students the opportunity to work on a lengthy piece, a form of writing that enables seniors to think across a discipline broadly while mastering its basic tenets. Furthermore, it forces students to engage with advanced literature in the field, facilitating their exposure to top-notch academic writing.

Finally, Brown must ensure that students are getting feedback on the written work that they submit for all classes. During finals last semester, I wrote 55 pages and initially received feedback on none of the 17,461 words I wrote for three different classes. After emailing the professors asking for comments, only two of the three responded. I have experienced this issue many times before— more than a handful of my previous classes have also left my final assignments either without comment or with merely a grade attached. Final papers are often the lengthiest, most heavily weighted and most time-consuming assignments of the semester. Professors should, at a minimum, provide students with comments on their most important work. Offering feedback is one of the most fundamental aspects of teaching a course, and professors should not be able to get away with merely providing a final grade. Students have a right to receive feedback on all of their work.

Good writing can inspire, entertain, persuade and motivate its readers. Many students write brilliant pieces in publications like the Brown Political Review and The Round. Hundreds of Brown’s alumni have mastered the written word, including science fiction writer Ted Chiang ’89 and novelist Lois Lowry ’58 (who did not graduate from Brown). Yet not enough undergraduates can write at this level. Requiring a writing mechanics class, senior thesis and consistent feedback on written work would be great steps in the right direction.

Jonathan Douglas ’20 can be reached at jonathan_douglas@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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