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Editorial: The benefits of a required first-year writing seminar

The University’s Statement on Liberal Learning at Brown lauds the open curriculum as one that “ensures you great freedom in directing the course of your education …(in order) to chart the broadest possible intellectual journey.” The following is a paradigm most Brown students are familiar with: One must use the open curriculum as a way to explore individual interests without letting such interests monopolize the entirety of an education. But perhaps less well-known than Brown’s open curriculum is the writing requirement. The same statement of liberal learning claims that “your ability to speak and write clearly will help you succeed in your college coursework and in your life after Brown.” While the “ability to speak and write” is indeed a noble goal, it is one that Brown’s curriculum could undoubtedly promote more effectively.

To satisfy the writing requirement, students must complete one approved writing course in the first half of their college education and either complete another approved course or demonstrate that they have worked on their writing in a different course in the second half of their college education. This  requirement can be met through “WRIT” courses ­— a loosely defined category of courses that strive to provide writing feedback ­­— , Writing Fellows courses, or any English, comparative literature, or literary arts course. But as many students know, there is hardly continuity across these writing “designated” courses. To put quite bluntly, the system in place is not standardized enough to ensure students leave Brown with a high-level of writing proficiency.

In his New York Times column entitled “What Should Colleges Teach,” renowned literary theorist Stanley Fish states, “As I learned more about the world of composition studies, I came to the conclusion that unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing, they are a sham.” Fish’s rhetoric is perhaps unfairly harsh, but his idea is salient: Academic language is an extremely difficult trade to master. Asking college students to master such a trade without a course specifically and exclusively dedicated to doing so will inevitably create a great divide between those students who have had the advantage of learning the mechanisms of academic writing before college and those who have not.

Boston College, Harvard, Vassar College and Wellesley College are among the many higher education institutions that require first-year students to enroll in a writing seminar focused primarily on the art of composition in an academic environment. Should Brown adopt this method, students would hold the leisure to dedicate an entire class-worth of time to improving and nuancing their writing abilities. Learning to express complex ideas in clear and concise rhetoric is a luxury that many outside of the academic world do not have and one that Brown students must take advantage of during their time in college.

The question then remains: Why has the University not done anything to facilitate change or address this issue? The reality is that we, as members of the University, must relinquish our fear of abandoning the hallmark of Brown — our open curriculum — so that we can begin to honestly engage with and improve our collective education.


Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: Natasha Bluth ’15, Alexander Kaplan ’15, Katherine Pollock ’16 and James Rattner ’15. Send comments to


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