The course announcement for the 2016-2017 academic year, along with the new website, Courses@Brown, was released not long ago, and ever since, many of us have been working on plans for the next two semesters. As we excitedly read course descriptions, fill our shopping carts and imagine next year’s academics, members of the classes of 2018 and 2019 do have to keep a new consideration in mind: the change to the writing requirement. Though the change makes the requirement a little harder to fulfill, it is ultimately for the better because it is based on a strong awareness of what students will need in their futures.
According to Brown’s webpage explaining the writing requirement, the first part — the successful completion of a WRIT-designated course during semesters one through four — has remained the same. But the second part of the requirement has been modified. While members of the classes of 2016 and 2017 can fulfill the second part of the requirement by submitting a 20-page writing sample during semesters five through seven, students from later class years no longer have this option. Current first-years and sophomores have to adhere to new guidelines, which state that students (if they choose not to take an additional approved course) can only fulfill the writing requirement through a writing sample if the submission is allowed by their concentrations. The webpage states, “Writing samples will be reviewed and approved by the concentration advisor.”
The purpose of Brown’s writing requirement is to make sure that students graduate with the skills to write well. Precise writing is essential to advancing fields of knowledge. Someone with important ideas, insights and research needs to precisely convey what he or she knows in order for others to respond and build upon that individual’s work. This is how areas of study develop: through dialogue between thinkers.
A lack of well-developed writing skills therefore impedes progress. Thinkers who cannot explain their ideas isolate themselves from people who could provide crucial help. Furthermore, if a scholar makes an important discovery, the finding has no impact if poorly communicated.
But why is writing particularly important? Because writing has a power beyond any other method of communication. It transcends time and space — a person living today can walk into a bookstore and read Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” even though it was published more than 150 years ago.
The modified writing requirement is still based on the assumption that two WRIT-designated courses are enough to develop strong general writing skills. The recent adjustment serves to ensure that students who do not take a second approved course are still able to write well within their chosen fields. This consideration is prudent, for numerous fields require strong writing skills, even ones that might not obviously involve much writing.
In her article “The Importance of Writing Skills in Tech-Related Fields,” Theresa MacPhail, an assistant professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology, interviews three professionals in tech fields and asks them about how clear writing and good communication are related to their work. MacPhail explains, “All three of them agreed: Writing skills not only matter in a tech career, they matter a lot.” One interviewee, Emily Greer, CEO of the gaming company Kongregate, states: “A well-written bug report saves everyone hours of time,” and, “Clear annotations on code help new people jump in on large projects — and help the original engineers to remember why they made certain choices long after the fact.” What is important is Greer’s assertion that writing skills directly serve even tech workers. MacPhail also interviews Samantha Kleinberg, a fellow assistant professor at the Stevens Institute, who explains, “I had absolutely no idea how much writing was required in science when I was an undergrad, and I do think students could be better prepared for it.” Her views reveal that Brown’s concern that every student, regardless of concentration, can write effectively, is prescient.
I do not know which concentrations at Brown will decide to allow students to submit writing samples to fulfill the requirement. But I admire the stricter guidelines, even though they make the requirement harder to complete. They are informed by the very real importance of writing throughout numerous disciplines and will benefit Brown students in their future careers.