Letters students wrote to their first-year advisers were used by administrators to assess writing ability in past years without students' or advisers' knowledge, Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron and Associate Dean for Writing Kathleen McSharry acknowledged.
The letters — part of the summer reading requirement initiated by the Office of the Dean of the College for the incoming class of 2011 — have been used each of the past three summers to flag students who did not demonstrate enough writing competency to satisfy the University's writing requirement. But until this year, Brown did not inform incoming students their letters would be assessed.
All students are required to demonstrate "competence in writing" in order to earn a Brown degree, but until recently, the requirement was only enforced if an instructor had specific concerns about a student and took formal steps to identify that student as writing-deficient.
"Brown has always had this general education requirement in its curriculum," Bergeron said. But she said it was "managed in a way as a deficit model."
Bergeron told The Herald in April that she found enforcement of the requirement "inadequate" following a similar finding by the recently concluded Task Force on Undergraduate Education, which she chaired.
To improve the system, Bergeron's office decided to use the first-year advising letters, in which students draw upon themes from the assigned summer reading and outline their goals at Brown, as a way to pinpoint incoming students as unsatisfactory writers and more actively encourage them to take measures to complete the writing requirement.
Before first-year advisers got hold of the letters, graduate students and writing assistants in the Writing Center were instructed to review them and flag first-year students who had submitted writing samples deemed unsatisfactory, Bergeron said. The graduate students were overseen by McSharry, who did a final read of the letters to verify the decisions before giving the letters to advisers.
"It was a trial period the first year," said Bergeron. "It wasn't really an issue of doing anything to students."
Both Bergeron and McSharry also said they did not inform advisers the first-year letters had already been evaluated.
"It was kind of in a gray area" whether more systematic communication about the program was needed, McSharry said. "We only communicated with advisers about students with difficulties."
But because neither Bergeron nor McSharry told first-year students or their advisers the letters would be used as an initial step in enforcing the writing requirement, some students wrote letters that McSharry said she realized did not reflect their writing ability.
Michael Frauenhofer '11 said he was flagged because he wrote a more poetic letter in non-standard form and without capitalization about his interest in art.
If he had known his letter would be critiqued, he said, he would "definitely" have written a more formal letter.
After the Task Force on Undergraduate Education — formed by the Dean of the College in 2007 to review academic programs at Brown — recommended last September a more tangible approach to enforcing the writing requirement, the Office of the Dean of the College began taking steps to reform the writing requirement by making it a more active process.
At the suggestion of two external consultants from Yale and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bergeron and McSharry decided to inform this year's incoming students their letters would be evaluated as part of the reformatted writing requirement.
McSharry said the external review panel told her Brown needed to inform students their writing would be judged, prompting a revision in the letter Bergeron sends to first-year students along with their summer reading.
Unlike in previous years, Bergeron included a paragraph in her letter explicitly outlining the advising letter's purpose as a diagnostic tool.
"I should mention that your letter will be read by a few other people, as well," she wrote. "The specialists in Brown's Writing Center will read your letter to get a sense of your strengths or weaknesses as a writer."
No such paragraph was included in letters sent to members of the classes of 2011 and 2012, which only instructed students to write to their advisers about their academic goals as a form of introduction.
But Bergeron said this year's letters from first-year students were not used only to flag those who had weaker writing skills. Though some students did receive warning letters, students who were judged to be exceptionally strong writers also received letters praising their writing ability.
According to McSharry, 8 percent of students received positive letters, while only 5 percent received letters with flag notifications.
"The overall quality of essays is higher this year," McSharry said.
Enforcing writing competence
Also part of the more active enforcement of the writing requirement was a collaborative statement drafted at the end of last semester by the Dean of the College and the College Curriculum Council offering suggestions for tangible fulfillment of the requirement.
"The goal is to move from a sufficiency model to a proficiency model," said Jason Becker '09, a former member of the CCC. But there is no intention to introduce a special writing course to satisfy the requirement, he said.
Instead, Becker said the goal was to identify and make visible opportunities for students to work on their writing.
One of the possibilities would be to introduce a new category of courses that would be labeled in the course guide much like first-year seminars, he said. This designation would indicate courses whose instructors would actively critique a student's writing.
Students will also be able to demonstrate competence with a new online portfolio tool that Bergeron said launched Sept. 1 as a place for students to submit writing samples throughout their time at Brown.
Though Bergeron's statement from last semester did outline these concrete pathways for satisfying the requirement, Becker said the statement did not succeed in designating a specific person to decide if a student has demonstrated writing competence.
"Part of the issue was that we never articulated what we expected," Becker said. As a result, the CCC is in the process of drafting another statement that more succinctly puts a system in place for identifying satisfactory fulfillment of the requirement.
Nevertheless, Becker said reforming the writing requirement is taking longer than the deans expected, which he attributed to student and faculty opposition to any form of requirement at Brown.
Bergeron said she thinks instituting more concrete methods for completing the requirement — as well as making the first-year advising letter a more recognized diagnostic tool — will ultimately benefit students.
"I think the requirement emboldens students to really work on the thing that will stretch them to improve their thinking," she said. "I'm excited about the next steps here."