Writing-intensive course labelling given approval

The faculty overwhelmingly voted to label courses writing-intensive in the course catalog at the April 14 faculty meeting. The Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) brought the proposal to the faculty, and it stirred discussion of the role of writing in the Williams curriculum.

In the motion, the CEP defined writing-intensive courses as those that “include a substantial amount of writing (cumulatively, at least 20 pages), usually divided into several discrete assignments. Normally, one or more of the assignments are returned to students for revision and resubmission. Instructors pay close attention to matters of punctuation, grammar, style and the construction of arguments when assigning grades to written assignments.” The CEP moved that this definition be added to the course catalogue.

In addition, the CEP asked that professors be allowed to identify their courses as writing-intensive in the course catalogue.

In response to faculty concern, the CEP stressed that this was not an initiative to create writing-intensive classes, to require them of departments or to require them of professors. “It’s a way of providing information to the students about courses that provide writing skills,” said Assistant Professor of psychology Elliott Friedman, a member of the CEP. “It’s not at all a directive to the faculty. It’s just a way of identifying courses that already exist in the curriculum,” he added.

The label should appear in the course catalogue for the fall. “The proposal was being discussed after the recent course catalogue had already been printed,” explained Registrar Charles Toomajian. “Clearly, the thing that we’re hoping is that we get a list of writing-intensive courses from departments and that we can mark them in the registration catalogue for the fall,” he said.

There are some caveats to the timing. “The real problem here is that it’s very, very late in the year. This is not an easy time to try and have a department go through its curriculum,” Toomajian said. “We’re all anxious to get it in as soon as we can, but we don’t want to do it until we’ve got it complete,” he said.

“In the future, those identifications will become part of the regular process [of writing the course catalogue],” he added.

The proposal stems from a long-standing concern among faculty, and meshes with recent curricular changes.

“There has been a discussion for years about whether the college is achieving its goals of helping students improve their writing,” said Friedman.

“It’s something that’s been batted around for a while,” echoed Amy Kohn ’01, a member of the CEP.

As mentioned in the proposal, it was propelled forward by changes in the English Department curriculum. The English Department has replaced its traditional 101 course with a series of 100 level courses on different topics. “The philosophy that the English Department has been taking with introductory courses is that students will best be able to develop their writing skills in courses that they find compelling,” explained Chair of the English Department Christopher Pye. In other words, the English Department has diversified its own offerings in order to focus and meet demand. In that vein, “the English Department is certainly in favor of something closer to writing across the curriculum,” Pye said.

“It dovetails nicely with the changes in English 101,” said Friedman. Friedman explained that English 101 has been used as a “default” for learning writing skills, while students may be better served by seeking to improve writing in subjects in which they are more interested.

“For students not interested in literature, English courses are not the best way to learn to write. If you’re not interested in analyzing literature, you may do better in another course,” said Professor of English Ilona Bell.

Toomajian cited not only the changes in English 101, but also the new Critical Reasoning-Analytical Studies cluster, as a driving force behind the proposal. “What’s happening is a general recognition that English is not the only department for improving one’s writing and argument skills,” he said.

Avenues besides English 101 – such as the Writing Workshop – do exist for students. However, they are also limited. “It [the Writing Workshop] fulfills a very important function, but it can’t address the close interaction between content and style,” said John Hawley Roberts Professor of English Suzanne Graver, a founder of the Writing Workshop.

The goal of the “writing-across- the-curriculum initiative,” as Graver dubbed it, is to better meet student need and demand for writing instruction. “I believe very strongly that no student should graduate from Williams without being able to write coherently, and I don’t know if that’s happening. It may be, but it may not be,” said Kohn.

“There’s an obvious problem that many students have in proficiency in writing skills, and it’s obviously division specific,” agreed Max Weinstein ’00, member of the CEP.

“Nobody is comfortable with not being able to write well, but many students are afraid to confront that,” expressed Graver.

The assumption behind the proposal is that students are more likely to surmount their fears and seek writing-intensive courses in subjects that interest them. “It’s a way of guiding students towards what they may be looking for,” said Registrar Toomajian.

“This is a general way for students to address their problem areas,” said Weinstein.

Yet, questions arose among the faculty about actual student demand for writing-intensive courses. “I think we know that students will avoid courses that they are weak in,” said Professor Heather Williams of the Biology Department. Williams recommended that some sort of writing skills test – a parallel to the Quantitative Studies exam – be administered during First Days, and that the results be used to mandate enrollment in the writing-intensive courses. “I think it would be useful for people to be identified. Why should they have to suffer through four years at Williams?” she said.

“I am not sure if students really want writing-intensive classes or not. An awful lot of Williams students seem to prefer getting a paper back with no comments whatsoever as long as it is combined with a decent grade,” said Fairleigh S. Dickinson, Jr. professor of political science Tim Cook. “Far too many students also equate comments as meaning that they had done something wrong, rather than seeing it as an opportunity for additional thought and reflection on what they have said,” he added.

“I think there’s student need. I don’t know if there’s student demand,” acknowledged Weinstein.

The real test comes in practice. “We really won’t know until it’s put into the book,” said Friedman. “As far as requiring it goes, it will depend on the mood years down the line,” he said.

“I hope that this will raise the level of discussion about writing-intensive courses, that it would be a good thing for all students to take one or more,” said Registrar Toomajian. “A lot will depend on reactions to the courses,” he said.

According to Graver, the ultimate success of the initiative will also depend on the resources the college is willing to devote to it. She mentioned both the resources necessary for the faculty to create smaller classes and the resources required to educate the faculty about writing standards.

Cook agreed. “The problem is largely one of resources, not of will to have a writing-intensive class,” he said. “I ultimately had to drop one last paper [from one of my courses] simply because the workload was overwhelming,” he said. “I doubt this initiative will go very far unless the administration finds some way to provide resources for us to devote the attention we need to,” he added.

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