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Despite strain writing course requirement to remain unchanged for the near future

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As the class of 2019 completes the sophomore planning process, and students look ahead toward deciding their future courses, disparities in writing-intensive course offerings between departments has initiated few discussions of changes to the program by the Office of the Provost.

One of multiple requirements students have to complete before graduation, the writing course requirement prescribes students to complete three designated W courses. Those courses must also be completed in at least two divisions. Courses are determined to be writing courses after a professor applies through the college’s Curriculum Committee. Professors describe their course to the committee, submit the syllabus, and the committee determines if some modifications are needed before the registrar can mark the course as a W course. The Curriculum Committee consists of the four division chairs, the registrar, the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, the Associate Provost for Educational Programs, three students, and the Provost.

Provost Tom Stephenson further elaborated on the Curriculum Committee’s process for determining writing courses.

“It’s not really a vote. We just talk about it and try to reach consensus. If there are serious objections raised, then those get fed back to the faculty member,” he said.

Courses that involve a lot of writing are not necessarily designated as official writing courses. That designation depends on a professor’s decision to apply through the Curriculum Committee. Furthermore, while writing courses do not necessarily have to include involvement of the college’s Writing Center and its Writing Associates, many do. Associate Professor of English literature and Director of the Writing Associate Program Jill Gladstein further explained the Writing Center’s role in helping professors provide writing courses to students.

“I am not directly responsible for the W courses. If a W course requests to have a WA, I will assign somebody, but as far as overseeing the implementation of W courses, that takes place more through the Curriculum Committee,” she said. “When the original proposal was written up for W courses, in there, I believe it said that writing courses would have priority over having WAs assigned. But, you didn’t have to.”

In regard to the demand for WAs over the years, Gladstein explained that there hasn’t been a decline.

“There are some classes like BIO 001 and BIO 002 that use WAs all the time. That predates me,” she said.

Gladstein also mentioned other large classes like PSYCH 025 and EDUC 014 that utilize multiple WAs.

“There are certain departments and courses that have utilized WAs since I’ve been here, and I’ve been here for around 15 years. And then there’s always a rotating faculty. Some new faculty come in and learn about the program and they decide to utilize WAs with their courses,” continued Gladstein.

While writing courses have been offered in every department at least once in the past, there are disparities in the distribution of writing courses across academic departments, especially in regard to departments that have undergone significant enrollment pressures in the past few years.

Since the fall of 2011, there has been one writing course offered in the economics department and 28 in the political science department. Compared to other departments that have experienced less enrollment pressure like the history department, there has been a more significant amount of writing courses offered. Over the same time period, 61 writing courses and sections of courses were offered in the history department. Some honors theses sections were marked W while others were not.

Stephenson offered an explanation for why this disparity exists.

“Part of the requirement for writing courses is there needs to be active mentoring of students in writing. Over the course there’s supposed to be a process of revision that may or may not involve WAs. And so, there’s a perception that it involves significant work and time investment by the faculty member. As a result, it is allowed but not required that faculty can cap enrollment of writing courses at 15,” he said.

Stephenson went on to say that departments that are under enrollment pressures like political science and economics don’t offer first year seminars or writing courses, leaving writing courses to be offered by smaller departments.

Professor of religion Steven Hopkins explained his reasoning for having his Patterns of East Asian Religions class be a writing course, despite the class exceeding more than 30 students.

“It is something that I’ve done since the beginning when I inherited this class. We’ve always done it in the department. Our intro courses have often been linked to writing courses, because writing is important to our department, particularly drafts and re-writes. And so, for the past years, I’ve kept it that way because I value the process,” he said. “It is difficult to deploy WAs. It takes time and energy from the professor. You have to have patience to deal with students that are scheduled and getting schedules on time. Logistically, I think maybe a lot of my peers think it’s a bit unwieldy if you have a large class, to manage WAs along with everything else.”

Professor of economics Mark Kuperberg also provided a similar explanation for why there is a significant lack of writing courses in some departments.

“Writing courses are a supply and demand thing. From the supply side, there’s this whole issue of freeing up professors and what other professors will have to teach in terms of total amount of students. On the demand side is whether a professor even wants to teach a writing course,” he said.

Kuperberg also predicted that this lack of writing courses would not change in the future. According to him, the college’s plans to increase the student body, increase the amount of faculty, and decrease the amount of courses professors must teach from five to four per year give a net effect of increasing the amount of students professors must teach in the department. This would further decrease the possibility of the economics department offering more writing courses in the future.

However, Kuperberg did not necessarily see a lower amount of writing courses in high enrollment departments as a bad thing.

“The writing course is also a clever way of incentivizing students to take courses in under enrolled departments. The highly enrolled departments are going to be less willing to offer writing courses, the lower enrolled departments are more willing to offer writing courses. Writing is something dependent on the subject. But, good writing is good writing, I believe. Wherever you take a writing course, it should improve your writing. It does have the side effect of pushing students into less enrolled departments. That’s not a bad thing necessarily,” he said.

Hopkins also agreed that the writing course requirement has been useful in exposing more students to the department.

However, some students like Sam Wallach Hanson ’18 wished that writing courses would have been useful in the economics department.

“I would have loved to learn more about writing for economics before jumping into some of the higher level courses. I’m also now about to enter my senior year with only two of my three writing requirements completed, as neither my major nor my minor offers any writing courses. I’ve enjoyed the writing courses I’ve taken in other departments, but I wish I could have taken W courses that were a bit more applicable to my areas of study,” said Hanson.

Ava Shafiei ’19, a WA, also shared her critique of the current writing course requirement.

“It’s not necessarily the amount of W courses that’s a problem. I think it’s that they’re distributed unevenly across departments, and that different professors and different departments treat WA courses with different levels of not only rigor but different pedagogical styles, and I think that makes a difficult for students to really gain the writing skills they need for want at college,” she said.

For other students, like Mohammad Boozarjohmehri ’19,  fulfilling the writing course requirement did not provide any difficulty.

“I met all my requirements, and I didn’t even know I met them all,” he quipped.

Despite the disparity in the amount of writing courses between departments, Stephenson signaled that there would not be concrete changes to the writing course requirement in the near future. He did mention, however, that the college’s Council on Educational Policy has been in the process of re-thinking graduation requirements.

“CEP, responsible for more broad-range curricular planning, is looking more generally at graduation requirements as a whole. And the writing course requirement is a big graduation requirement topic. One of the issues on our agenda is to think more holistically about graduation requirements. That work has been underway for a while, and we haven’t reached any conclusions. We’ve collected some data about the writing requirement, but haven’t really had the opportunity to digest it,” said Stephenson.

That data concerns polling departments about what sort of writing they do in their curriculum that is designated in writing courses versus non writing courses. According to Stephenson, one of the main criticisms of the writing course requirement learned so far is that there are very writing intensive courses that do not carry the W designation.

If the CEP does come up with a policy proposal to change the writing course requirement, the proposal would be voted on by faculty and need to be passed by a simple majority after public discussions. Also, the new policy change would only affect future students, and not ones currently enrolled. However, Stephenson noted that he does not see a policy change happening for a long time.  

News editor Ryan Stanton also contributed to this article.

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