Writing at Williams needs to be re-visioned

At Williams, as at other similar academic institutions across the country, the analytical essay has long been vaunted as the primary tool of evaluation and expression. We are encouraged to participate in class and to become vocal and outspoken individuals, but at the end of the semester the most significant factor in determining our grades is our written work (at least in the bulk of Division I and Division II courses).

On the surface, Williams appears to be committed to producing good writers: a recent lecture series addressed the issue of writing at Williams; the student-run and dean-supported Writing Workshop aims to offer an alternative resource for students interested in improving their writing skills; and Williams professors assign a broad range of essays, ranging from weekly one-page philosophy papers to 15-page economics research papers to 30-40 page research papers for some history seminars. Recently, a scattering of professors have introduced innovations in the essay writing process, asking students to come to a thesis at the end of their papers rather than stating one at the beginning, or abandoning the structuring device of the thesis altogether.

There is little doubt that among the faculty, administration and students at Williams, there are a number of exceptional and gifted writers.

Yet, despite all this talent and the abundant resources that Williams provides, it still is clear that many students fall through the literary cracks.

Underlying the teaching of writing at Williams is an assumption that most students are able to write very well (or at least decently) when they arrive to begin their four years here. But with the diversification and dissolution of the curricula at many American high schools, this becomes a dangerous assumption. It seems perilous to presuppose that all Williams students have learned the intricacies (or even the basics) of grammar in middle school, or that they have mastered the skill of the analytical essay during high school. Williams students are admitted for a variety of different reasons; they come with unique attainments from a broad range of educational backgrounds.

But very few professors at Williams take the time to work on an individual basis with the weakest writers. Moreover, good writers are criticized on content, but very rarely taken to task for stylistic foibles, or provided with the criticism they need to turn into great writers. The Writing Workshop attempts to fill in the gaps between student writers and professors, but it is a limited resource at best.

There are, no doubt, exceptions to the rule. There are some Williams professors who do anatomize the writing of their students. But these professors are few and far between. Williams students are expected to improve (or in some cases to learn) the art of writing through practice, and as a result of the desire for a good grade.

Critics of the curriculum at Williams lament that it is possible to graduate from this institution without having taken a course in Shakespeare, without having mastered a foreign language, or having studied a lab science. But is it possible to graduate from Williams without knowing how to write well? Or, more essentially, is it possible to graduate without knowing how to write at all?

The faculty and the students of Williams comprise one of the largest conglomerations of good writers in one place in the country. Yet we do not learn from our peers and mentors as much as we could. Moreover, we do not always provide those writers who are sub-standard with the assistance they require. And professors should be far more liberal in their use of the red pen.