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W course for int’l students has promise

in Columns/Op-Eds/Opinions by

Several weeks ago, I received an e-mail inviting all international students to meet with Dr. Natalie Mera Ford, who currently serves as a Swarthmore’s Multilingual Writing Specialist. As an international student, I was interested in how college-level writing in the US differ from that in other countries, especially here at Swarthmore where every student must take at least three writing courses in two distinct disciplines in order to graduate. Moreover, because most of my professors had yet assigned any major essay (an indication that they soon would), I believed it would be useful to know beforehand the challenges international students often face while attuning their writing skills to the level expected at Swarthmore. Therefore, I attended the session and was surprised: some international students did not have trouble with their writing skill or their writing fluency as much as with the academic writing norms to which they have no prior exposure.  

Before addressing anything further, I would like to define two terms pertinent to our discussion: writing skill and writing fluency. This article defines writing skill as the ability to formulate a grammatically correct sentence. The greater one’s writing skill is, the fewer grammatical mistakes one makes while conveying an idea. Standardized English exams evaluate students primarily on this area. On the other hand, writing fluency refers to how natural one feels while crafting sentences with appropriate syntax and word choice. Indeed, all fluent writers make minor grammatical mistakes once in awhile, but we would still call those writers fluent if those grammatical mistakes do not significantly interfere with the message they wish to convey. Hence, writing skill does not correlate with writing fluency. With these definitions established, I will explain why writing skill and writing fluency do not trouble international students at Swarthmore as much as some may assume.

First, because the admission process at Swarthmore is extremely selective, it is highly unlikely that non-proficient English users could enter the institution. To elaborate, Swarthmore tests its applicants’ English proficiency on several instances before offering them an acceptance letter. Numerically, applicants demonstrate their English skill through their GPA and their standardized test scores (e.g. SAT, ACT, TOEFL, and so on). Pragmatically, they demonstrate how fluent they are as an English writer through their personal essays via Common Application. On top of that, some applicants may be interviewed by Swarthmore admission in English. These rigorous admission process applies to all students at Swarthmore, domestic or international.

Therefore, we could assume that international students have an English proficiency equivalent to that level of native English speakers.

Second, the learning environment at Swarthmore is conducive to the development of English skill. At the most superficial level, all classes except foreign language are conducted in English at Swarthmore. Every day, students read texts in English, listen to lectures in English, and complete the homework their professors assigned in English. At the more meaningful level, we analyze, criticize, and synthesize every claim we come across as we embrace the spirit of liberal arts education, all in English. In other words, because the amount of reading, listening, and speaking in English required in this institution is tremendous, every Swarthmore student develops their writing skill, their writing fluency, and other areas of English proficiency as a result. Thus, even if you do not buy into the argument set forth in the previous paragraph and still believe international students are somewhat less proficient than native English users, the gap between the former and the latter will eventually diminish thanks to Swarthmore education.

However, based on the conversation I had with my international friends, Dr. Mera Ford, and people who worked closely with international students, the consensus is that even though a significant number of international students believe they are proficient in English, they do not feel confident in their writing ability as much as they should. As mentioned earlier, such lack of confidence arises because some of the international students do not know how Swarthmore professors expect them to write. Although this problem applies to other student populations as it affects international students in particular: the latter may internalize the blame, believing they struggle because of their inferior writing ability even though such explanation is untrue. Culture significantly affects how one writes. This article will now provide several examples to support the claim and put forth some possible solutions.

To begin, the first major problem is that, whereas the writing at Swarthmore emphasizes content and clarity, the writing style with which some international students are familiar focuses on the beauty of the language. My experience in Thai education system warrants this claim. In Thailand, students learn Thai as their first language. By the age of six, the age they presumably have a solid foundation in Thai language, they will start studying English. English, therefore, is not a first language for the majority of Thai students. To determine how knowledgeable each student is in English and reduce the potential gap in knowledge, Thai teachers focus upon the language usage in an essay rather than the content. Thai education, in essence, values big words over small words, indirect over direct communication, and rhetorical beauty over logical clarity. In contrast, to write well in American settings, one must be as clear and concise as possible. I, along with many international students I know, struggle tremendously while transitioning from the former writing style to the latter. In essence, such difference in writing culture between the United States and other countries cause some international students to focus more on the language and less on the content, which is contrary to what Swarthmore professors prefer.

Another major problem regarding the expected norm of writing is citation. In some countries, citation is not expected. Rarely are students in those countries penalized for failing to cite properly. The opposite applies to the United States: one could face a serious academic probation from failing to cite oneself, let alone other authors. One of my international friends once told me that she felt awkward every time she cited because citation is not “a thing” in her country. To exacerbate this issue, because there exist so many citation formats (e.g. MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.), chances are students unfamiliar to the citation culture forget to cite or fail to cite properly. Indeed, neither forgetting to cite nor failing to cite properly indicates how skillful or fluent one’s writing proficiency is. Rather, they reflect how cultural difference could potentially impact international students’ ability to write.

Lastly, the last problem pertains to the extent to which Swarthmore students use the writing resources Swarthmore offers. To answer this question, I created a survey with several questions regarding each student’s writing experience from “How confident are you in your writing skills?” to “What are your writing background prior to entering Swarthmore?” To make pertinent to our discussion, only the data gathered from surveys international students complete will be reported in this article.

One of the survey questions asks students to describe how content they feel towards the writing resources Swarthmore offers on the scale of 1 to 5 (1 = Not at all, 5 = Nothing to complain). Another asks how often they use those resources through similar scale (1 = Never use them, 5 = Use them whenever I could). Interestingly, eleven responses to the first question fall between 3 to 5, which means they believe Swarthmore, at the very least, provides sufficient resources on writing. However, when asked how often they use those resources, six responses fall either into 1 or 2, indicating that half of the surveyed students barely, if never at all, utilize those resources. Some justification include: “I procrastinate to the last minute, so I don’t have enough time to visit any WAs”; “I feel no need to use it”; “I am simply too busy.” Even more interestingly, for students who have taken or are taking a writing class, more than half believe the taking writing course does not help improve their writing skill as much as they had initially expected. Few even argue the non-writing courses they have taken improve their writing skill and fluency more than the W-accredited courses. Also, whereas two-thirds struggle with expressing ideas clearly and citing properly, virtually every student has problem with spending too much time on writing.

Overall, even though this survey by no means represents the general consensus among international students because of its small sample size, we still learn that some students know the writing resources exist but do not use them for several reasons. Common struggles among international students include spending too much time on writing, expressing ideas clearly, and citing properly, with the last two pertaining specifically to international students. How should we solve these problems?qqq

First, every class should make explicit what style of writing the class expects every of its students to adopt: if students worry less about how to write, they could devote more time into thinking what to write. Second, Swarthmore should provide sessions on citation, plagiarism, and basic writing processes, and so forth to all students who are interested. Indeed, because not every student who struggles with writing could take the Transition to College writing class, it is essential that these sessions be provided early so that the struggling students could fix whatever problems they may have with writing before taking more advanced, writing-heavy courses. Lastly, students and Writing Center should reach out to one another more. Perhaps, if the Writing Center has more flexible operating hours, students will be encouraged to use the center more. Writing is difficult. Addressing these issues will make writing way easier.  

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

in Around Campus/News by

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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