Williams should require writing courses

At the April 14th faculty meeting, the faculty approved a CEP proposal to label courses “writing-intensive” if they meet certain requirements. Courses fitting this description would require a certain amount of writing (at least 20 pages over the course of a semester) and professors would offer comments about both style and content when grading papers.

Hopefully, this new designation, in addition to simply providing students with more information about courses, would help students find writing courses in a wide variety of subjects, allowing them to concentrate on writing withing their specific area of interest. The proposal does not call for the creation of new classes, merely the identification of pre-existing courses that already fit the writing-intensive description.

We applaud the faculty’s decision to identify writing-intensive courses. The ability to write, and write well, is an essential element of a liberal arts education. Sadly, it is not difficult for students to enter and leave Williams College with sub-par writing skills.

An obvious concern with the new writing intensive designation is that students with weaker writing skills, precisely the students who would benefit most from taking writing intensive courses, might shy away from them, fearing a low grade. Therefore, while we feel identifying writing-intensive courses is a good first step, we believe more should be done.

The CEP was careful to insist that this proposal does not encourage or require professors to offer writing intensive courses, nor does it require students to take them. However, we would be happy to see these courses become part of every student’s Williams experience.

Some might object to the requirement on the grounds that it would further restrict students in their course selection. But the College can and should require certain things of its students. We have the divisional requirements and the peoples and cultures requirement because the College believes there are some things (an exposure to different disciplines and cultures) without which a student should not be able to leave Williams. An ability to write should be one of those things.

Maximum student freedom is a worthy goal, and as students we appreciate being able to take the courses we want to take. However, this kind of student freedom need not come at the expense of educational excellence. Instituting a requirement of at least one writing intensive course in four years would help ensure that every student emerges from Williams with the ability to write.

Writing skills are essential to students regardless of the careers they choose after college. Alumni frequently cite the ability to write well as one of the most valuable things they learned at Williams. Ellie Carson-Walter ’91, in town for the first Williams College BIMO Alumni Research Reunion, spoke to the Record about the value of a Williams Education. “I felt that I had really come away with the ability to communicate ideas – to write. If you can’t write in the sciences, you’re stuck.”

And this, we feel, is precisely the point. If you can’t write, you’re stuck. Period. Requiring Williams students to take at least one writing-intensive course is not overly restrictive. After all, practically any department can offer writing-intensive courses.

In the past, many have seen the English department as the department that teaches writing. This new designation emphasizes that it is one of many. For this reason, the designation is a good thing, but we need more.

The first step is recognizing that students can be taught writing within a variety of disciplines. The next step is making the teaching of writing an essential part of a Williams education.

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