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Strictly good advice

in Campus Journal by

 

Strictly Good Advice,

 

When do I know if I have something worth writing or saying?

 

Thanks,

 

Christian.

 

Hello, Christian, and thanks for your question. I enjoyed this question because working toward an answer led me to internalize some personally important facts. Confidence in my justification for the quality of the things I write and say is critical for writing an advice column in which there is a total absence of credibility; in more positive language, I am writing from a position of incredibility. Playing tricks on words to make them sound more charitable and generous to yourself is a piece of advice I am giving you for free, because I appreciated the question very much.

My answer to your question has three parts. First, I aim to identify two problem spaces of your question and describe one of them in some detail. Then I will demonstrate a problem with the relationship between your decision to say something and your ability to evaluate that utterance. I will conclude with a practical suggestion, my usual strategy for managing self doubt in my words.

You are uncertain about the value of the things you write or say. I will focus on two main aspects of this uncertainty: (1) the architecture of your self-esteem and (2) your fluency managing different criteria for meaning in different contexts. I have numbered these two points to reflect the order in which they will be presented for discussion. There may be other elements to your indecisive hesitation in sharing your thoughts; you may, for example, be nervous about the worth of your commentary because you suffer from a cognitive disorder that limits your accessible thoughts to facts about toasters, and are desperate for a way to make people see the importance of your insight into various temperatures and durations of toasting, your many valuable experiences preparing the various breads, etc. Such concerns are out of my depth, and so I will stop short of having three things to say.

Maybe you believe that you hold back when expressing yourself, and that this holding back is a consequence of a more foundational deficiency in the credit you give yourself for getting through each day without burning the toast. I observe that moments of anxiety over the legitimacy of my speech find their roots in more general issues with my confidence. Hesitation over whether you should speak what is on your mind is in this sense a superfluous consequence of hesitation over whether you should do anything at all. If you believe that your desires to think and act somehow face goodness – and they may not, e.g.,  if you’re the type who only appreciates toasters for their potential to incite catastrophic blaze, this advice doesn’t apply – then you should assume that they warrant pursuit. If it helps you, get a T-shirt with a dipping check mark and “JUST DO IT” branded into the chest. This way you can look in the mirror and your question is answered. Or you may imagine some more confident friend or loved one of yours, who thinks you are worth their time. So long as such a person’s existence is in principle possible, we’ve reason to suppose an association between your outward life and other confident people’s interest in it, which would be a good evidential basis for some self-motivated encouragement to speak confidently. There are lots of ways to improve your confidence, and I can’t possibly exhaust them or even give them a fair representation in this column. My point is rather to suggest that strengthening your conviction in your virtues more generally will support your belief that investing in your own words is worthwhile. I will say so much for (1), and continue as briskly as possible because I have been getting a little carried away.

The problem posed in (2) is more complicated, or at least my exposure to literature on the topic has been limited. For these and other reasons I am taking a pass on it. To be fair, I only said that I would explain one of the two numbered points above. If you were unsatisfied with the depth of this discussion and would like to ask a follow-up question, refer to the information given below the column.

If a decision to say something depends on other people receiving it well, and it is impossible to know whether or not people have received it well unless you have already said it, it is thus impossible to decide whether or not to say something depending upon its reception by others. In fact, the speaker is not even in an appropriately informed position to evaluate her own speech, at least not before it has been said, because no one knows what any of the qualities of the speech are, let alone whether or not they can be evaluated generously. This suggests that a preemptive positive judgment may be an unreasonable standard to which to hold one’s own speech. So if you’re looking for a reason why you should choose to say certain things rather than others, it should probably not be that any person likes certain things rather than others; read into that whichever individualist cliché that you like best.

As I promised earlier, I will conclude the advice by describing a practical example illustrating a technique that I use to quickly determine whether one of my mental deliberations is worth verbalizing. The technique is a short list of questions about the statement in question. We will demonstrate the power of these questions by their application to the example.

Consider the toaster enthusiast mentioned earlier. For simplicity’s sake let’s give her a name, something easy, like Toastina. Toastina is at a party, where she is chatting with an attractive classmate who seems to appreciate the difference between variable time versus heat considerations in the most suitable preparation of an average sample of wheat bread. Toastina would like to remark to her peer that, depending on the size X of the slice S, a toasting function of N minutes at temperature T in a vertically oriented pop-up cooker will best prime S for the distribution of butter D at some intersection of these relevant variables. She would be well-suited to ask the following questions about this claim, before she faces brutal indifference at the hand of a potential companion: is what I am about to say vitally important to the interlocutor’s ability to understand what I believe in a sense meaningful to the conversation? Is what I am about to say going to offend someone, and if so, is it an appropriate situation in which to provoke this offense? Does what I am about to say give the interlocutor something to say (or at least think) in response?

In Toastina’s unfortunate case, her rich understanding of the mechanics of toasting are, for better or for worse, indispensable to a comprehensive description of her character, and if you are trying to get someone to know you, such a description is vitally important to the conversation. I see no reason why on the face of things her claim about toast is offensive, so she passes the second interrogative hurdle. At the end of this procedure, we see that Toastina’s impassioned remark about optimal cooking protocol fails to be “worth” saying, unless of course she’s got reason to believe that her partner in conversation has also got something really deep and specific to say about toasting bread, or at least would be interested in some such thing. For now I’ll make the pessimistic assumption that she has not been so lucky as to find a person like this.

 

In need of some strictly good advice? Send your question by e-mail to strictlygoodadvice (at) gmail (dot) com, or by following the hyperlink below.

https://goo.gl/forms/44UxLFt5UsiZPiJD2.

Benefits of bilingualism

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

Last weekend, I volunteered to cook for the Chinese New Year party hosted by the Chinese Department. As I was frying spring rolls — authentic Chinese food — to be served at the party, I had the opportunity to meet with fellow Chinese learners as well as the professors who teach at Swarthmore. Each of us had a unique background and unique characteristics; however, there existed one common thread between us: our aspiration to explore Chinese language and culture. The event featured attendees performing to Chinese songs, such as as “Drum-dance of Fong Yang” and “Gong Xi Gong Xi,” which is translated to “Wishing You Prosperity and Happiness.” Not only did this event provide me with a memorable experience, it also convinced me that every Swarthmore student should try learning new languages during their years at Swarthmore.

To begin with, language is the key to understanding culture, because the language one speaks influences one’s behaviors, ideas, and actions. Because Thai is my native language, I experienced a culture shock during my transition from learning in Thai to learning in English here in the United States. In Thailand, when two people meet, they greet each other with “sawasdee,” add “ka/krub” to make the speech more polite, and address each other by seniority. Because Thai culture treasures family-style relationship, one uses pronouns similar to those used in addressing family members to show respect for the other speaker’s seniority. Raised in such culture, I was therefore surprised to learn many Swarthmore professors said they do not mind if students drop the “Mr.,” “Ms.,” or “Professor” and call them by their first name. None of my Thai teachers has ever allowed me to drop these formalities. Minor as it sounds, such pronoun difference reveals that American culture is more individualistic than Thai culture: whereas addressing a professor by her name suffices in the former, it does not in the latter.

Spoken language aside, the written forms of both languages differ as well: whereas most English words contain different nuances even for synonyms (e.g. happy, joyous, cheerful), many synonyms in Thai have the exact same meaning. Not realizing such difference when I first learnt to write in English, I usually used English synonyms interchangeably, obscuring what I intended to convey as a result. For instance, I used to write “I am joyful to see you” when my true message was “I am glad to see you.” In some cases, I did not use them correctly because I did not understand the culture behind the language. My WA once suggested I fixed my habit of overusing the word “could” to mean “can” to make my writing more affirmative. As I became more proficient in English, I could understand the mistakes I made and Western culture better. Because each word choice has its distinct nuance, writers are expected to choose their words wisely and express their ideas as simply and clearly as possible. Do not circumlocute. Use precise words. Get to the point. Perhaps this quality of English explains why I find Americans tend to be more straightforward than people in my country.

Although some languages, such as English and Spanish, are spoken in many countries, the usage of those languages varies. For example, although England and the United States use English as their official languages, both countries express similar ideas differently and thus have a different culture. Indeed, no language encompasses every aspect of a culture. However, as the earlier paragraphs suggested, even such rudimentary aspects of language as pronoun difference and nuances in synonyms can enrich how one understands a culture.

Another reason to study foreign language is that language fosters empathy and camaraderie between different groups of people. As language reflects culture, it allows a person to express their identity and humanize themselves to other people’s eyes. When two strangers who speak the same language meet, not only do they understand the culture which influences the other, they empathize with each other more than they would have if both barely understood each other. This empathy is especially important today when many countries are starting to raise the barrier between “us” and “them.”

Hari Srinivasulu ’21, a trilingual in English, Hindi, and Tamil —  the language spoken in Southern India — said “I rarely speak Tamil [at Swarthmore] as there are very few Swatties from South India. However, the rare conversations I do have with people who speak Tamil end up making my day, even my week.”

He argued that any opportunities to speak Tamil helps him remain in touch with his identity while he was away from home. It is comforting to know there are people out there who can understand us and empathize with us. Because each foreign language encapsulates a unique cultural aspect, knowing more languages helps us better express ourselves and bond with others more meaningfully.

Moreover, with language, in order for one to understand cultural nuances, that person needs to practice and make mistakes. Language is a great venue for such practice. Recall when you first studied algebra. Your professor explained many basic rules to you, such as that it is not possible to divide both sides of the equation by zero. But unless you revisit such mistakes, it is rather impossible for you to memorize those rules. Because language classes at Swarthmore meet frequently and have many sections, professors can correct each student’s grammatical mistakes and pronunciation. Personally, I attribute my improvement in Chinese to my interaction with professors.

Indeed, the common argument against studying any foreign language is that there is no point to more foreign languages if you already can speak more common languages such as Chinese, English, or Spanish. The reasoning follows: as more people are learning these languages, you need not bother because if the main purpose is to communicate, more common languages will suffice. This argument is true to some extent. If a person who lives in the U.S. speaks English, that person will survive because English is the official language. However, the problem occurs when you want to express some ideas that cannot be represented in the common language. Take Thai greetings for instance. There is no equivalent translation of “sawasdee” in Thai to English. “Hello” and “hi” overlook how Thai people respect the elderly. The word “sawasdee”— which literally means “be safe” — also expresses the goodwill the speaker expresses to the listener. After all, not all aspects of the language can be translated into another language. Some aspect of language is inevitably lost in translation. Certain culturally unique expressions can be expressed only by people who know that language. Culture matters.

The second argument is that it is difficult to learn new languages, especially if you attend a rigorous institution like Swarthmore. By studying a new language, one has to devote lots of time and effort into learning that language, which means there are fewer chances of studying other subjects. This is true, but the flip side of this argument is also true — choosing to take any class always entails foregoing another class. At this point, I am still not certain if I will ever speak Chinese as fluently as a native speaker would, but the enrichment from learning Chinese outweighs the cost. Now, I can hold a simple conversation in Chinese and understand why Chinese people bless one another to be wealthy and prosperous. I would not have obtained such cultural understanding had I decided not to enroll for the class.

All in all, there are many benefits to studying new languages that one should consider. College, after all, is where one becomes exposed to new cultures, ideas, and perspectives. Learning new language helps you achieve that goal.

Why don’t I write anything down?

in Opinions/Swat Global by

When I first sat down to write my column I was so excited. During my three semesters of editing for the Phoenix I wasn’t able to write opinions pieces due to a rule in the Phoenix’s editorial policies. So after three semesters I was finally able to write an opinions piece. Finally I would be able to share all my wonderful ideas of how to improve the campus and the world. But when I started to think of topics on which I could write, I couldn’t think of any.  I tried to think back to everything that I had felt strongly about the last few years and couldn’t find anything substantial.

After a week of this, I thought I had come up with the most brilliant idea. I would write about how our opinions don’t matter. I would explain to this campus of activists that we are all nobodies and it is time we recognize it.

After about a week of feeling smug with myself for coming up with this brilliant idea, I realized how stupid it really was. 1) It is the most obviously hypocritical thing anyone could write.If we are all nobodies and nobody’s opinion matters, why should my opinion that nobody’s opinion matters matter? 2) I didn’t actually believe it. Sure, sometimes I may feel defeated and small and think that nothing anyone does will ever be good enough to change things, but most of the time I see the merits of having educated conversations and developing our opinions.

After dismissing and defeating my own idea I went back to trying to find another idea, but I was still stumped. I was confused. I feel like I’ve had lots of interesting conversations that are relevant to Swarthmore’s campus, so why couldn’t I think of a writing topic?

Then I realized that it was because I never wrote any of my ideas down and consequently most of my opinions aren’t very flushed out. Most come in the forms of internal rants I have as I walk back to my dorm at night or conversations I have at Sharples.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how important writing is. It is easy to spew a half-throught-out opinion in a conversation, but when you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) you are forced to think through it. You see the flaws in your own argument and begin to fill in the holes.

Whether you are scribbling down an outline for a paper or writing an informal journal, the process of writing forces one to go one step further. Maybe you will realize that you have no rational reason for hating that one person you just don’t like or come up with a brilliant idea for your next paper.  Writing is a slower process than speaking or thinking, and slowing down your thought process can help make your thoughts more complete and well-rounded.

I am abroad in Stockholm this semester, and if you have ever been abroad or talked to someone who has, you know that the number one advice you will get is to journal.  Everyone says how amazing of an experience study abroad is and how important it is to write it all down. For example, before orientation for my program, we read a few chapters of “Writing About Culture” that explored the relationship between journaling and culture shock. The book repeated the importance of journaling. In addition to the reading, I have also spent the last several months listening to my mother and my grandparents remind me about how important it is to keep a journal abroad. As much as I want to roll my eyes at this advice, I see where they are coming from.

I have been in Stockholm for about a month now and have actually taken the advice of keeping a journal. Every day (or at least when I remember to) I quickly write what I did and how I felt. Just in the past three weeks I have seen the advantages of keeping a journal. Writing about what I do on a day-to-day basis will mean that I can look back and see what I did and what I enjoyed. Writing about when I felt sad or homesick forced me to think about what made me feel better. Unsurprisingly, I have yet to master the journaling process. I still forget to do it a lot, and when I do remember to journal, I mostly focus on my own personal experiences and not what is happening around me. I hope to expand my journaling to write about things that I am passionate about. Maybe I could take one of those late night internal rants and turn it into a journal entry. I want to push myself to go beyond my initial impressions or feelings and think hard about why I feel the way I do. This goal can be applied to more personal things such as why I had a good or bad day or bigger things like why I think repealing the individual mandate is a terrible idea.

Journaling is something I have started mostly so I can remember my study abroad experience, but after only a few weeks of journaling I hope that this is a habit that can continue once I return home. Study abroad is a great time to start a journal, but writing things down, in whatever method you think is best, is something that anyone can do at any time to push yourself to be better.

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.

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

in 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.

Acclaimed writer returns to campus for reading

in Arts by

As part of a larger series on “Sensuous Thinking and the Artistic Process,” fiction author and Swarthmore alumnus Adam Haslett ’92 treated a small audience to a reading of two of his short works. The event opened with a short introduction by Haslett’s former professor and friend, Richard Eldridge. Eldridge opened with a recollection of what he called “public information” ― information about Haslett’s work and its many critical accolades. He transitioned quickly into his own thoughts on his former student’s fiction, prefaced by a warning that his insight had yet been unapproved by the author, and that he “might be completely wrong” in his interpretation.

Eldridge entered a complicated and thought-provoking explanation of the philosophy of literature applied to Haslett’s work, talking about how the characters in his fiction have “not quite developed.” Then he ceded the stage to Haslett, who thanked him and began his the reading.

“I’m going to sit down,” he began, “so that I can focus more on the fiction and less on standing still.”

In his opening statement, Haslett’s speech was both polished and casual. He told an evocative story about his time being back on campus, about his challenges connecting the “felt place” of his present experience to the rose-tinted glasses of selective memory and how he strives to represent this divide in his fiction. A central idea of his speech and, in a sense, his fiction, was the related notion of “attending the experience,” something that he said was necessary to sharing and really “having” the experience. He moved forward to talk more specifically about his fiction, explaining the importance of the sound of language and the rhythm in prose. Mastering these things is, according to Haslett, both a common difficulty and crucial boundary to overcome for writers.

Then finally, after two explanations of his work and an acclimation of both audience and storyteller to the weird layout of the Scheuer room (someone forgot to move the chairs, as pictured), Haslett began to read his fiction.

He started with a story titled “Siebert,” chronicling a brief date and sexual encounter between a man ― named Siebert, of course ― and the story’s female protagonist. That’s a little reductive, though, and of course there’s more to the very moving and delicately written and rightfully praised (by real reviewers at real publications) story than just that. But it’s more interesting, in a piece like this, to consider Haslett as he read and the added significance of his reading out loud.

People would react to some lines with laughter or unvoiced shock, and sometimes he would make commentary; on his own voice, on his own complexion as he describes his character’s paleness. During his second story, “The Act,” he even stopped himself halfway, realizing he had made a mistake.

“That should have been Cleveland, at the beginning,” he said, “not Cincinatti.”

“The Act” was markedly different from and just as beautiful as “Siebert,” featuring tighter prose and further removal from romance.

The sharp contrast between the pieces that he read was clarified during the brief Q and A session following the reading. While he acknowledges “The Act” as different from the rest of his work ― the piece, which deals with the deaths of two fathers, was written in what Haslett called “a moment of political despair” ― it deals with the same theme of “vulnerability.” He quoted James Baldwin referring to the artistic imperative to “vomit up” the anguish within the writer through the work. All of his characters are vulnerable by necessity as much as all people are vulnerable by necessity, whether it be through sex or familial relation or connection to their cell phones. It’s a sense of vulnerability that came across as he read, “focused on the fiction” in a way that made it seem like he was constantly being caught unaware by new discoveries in his own words.

After the reading and the questions, Haslett relinquished control of the audience back to Eldridge, who thanked everyone for coming and offered refreshments.

“There are cookies in the back,” he said to conclude, in a tone suggesting that the cookies were news to him, too.

The dissonant muse of academic writing

in Columns/Opinions/Periscope by

My recent consumption of deficient print media inspired the following opinion, which will address the verbose nature of contemporary stylistic tendencies in academic literature. Perhaps I’ll start again: after reading some awful prose, I’ve decided to talk about wordy academic writing.

We’ve all encountered this type of writing. History students like me have it bad, although my literary friends are uniquely victimized. Every reading assignment, it seems, is replete with convoluted text. I’m sure most of us have asked ourselves at one time or another, “Why does it have to be so thick? Why can’t these writers just say what they mean?” First of all, complexity might be the author’s only choice. In the sciences, philosophy, and linguistics, jargon is unavoidable. Even in cultural analysis, thorny topics need thorny terms. But the poor writing I’m referring to is totally avoidable and totally widespread. The disciplines it has most damaged reside, sadly, in the humanities. The rich traditions of literary and cultural theory have been almost incurably corrupted.

The offending authors exhaust every possible variation of “conception,” “tendency,” “empirical,” “framework,” “objective,” “phenomenon,” “hegemonic,” “relative,” “structure,” “social,” “culture,” and the words whose absurd overuse makes me cringe every time, “contemporary” and “institution.” What’s most frustrating is that these aren’t bad words at all. “Hegemonic” is one of my favorites. But in academia they usually muddle rather than clarify.

Why is the situation so dire? Here are some possibilities: it’s a habit academics have been taught and can’t break; they’re not thinking clearly (but want to sound smart), so they hide behind indecipherable verbal sorcery; and they want to make unscientific disciplines sound scientific.

First let’s look at two examples. When I open my comparative politics textbook at random, here’s what I find: “While we are sympathetic to the arguments that students of democratization have been biased as a result of their selective attention to indicators of democratic development and their pronounced tendency to ignore alternative interpretations, we think that the decision to counter these problems by focusing on the many ways authoritarian leaders are strong, creative, resilient and the like suffers from serious biases as well.” This is one of many mouthfuls on that page. The author could easily have written: “Some are too quick to interpret as a seed of democracy what could be another sign. However, we think that the response to this problem — studying dictators’ strength, creativity and resilience—is also biased.” Still, the original isn’t horrendous. It’s about average — comprehensible, if you read it two or three times, but boring and thick.

The most gelatinous swamps of academic writing ooze from the fields of literary and cultural theory. Consider, for instance, the following passage from a 1997 article by Judith Butler: “The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.” I’m not going to try to translate this into a decent sentence, because frankly I haven’t the faintest idea what it means. I’ve studied structuralism; I’ve studied social relations; I’ve read some of Althusser’s work on structural Marxism, but no amount of background or education can rescue this morass from itself. Incidentally, this same specimen won Philosophy and Literature’s Bad Writing Contest in 1998.

Not everyone who writes badly has bad ideas. Often behind the mangled sentences lies real quality. But academics are taught by other academics, and thick prose is an old tradition. When I write essays, I find myself slipping into this style because professors react well to it. Unless you actively stop yourself, the vague phrases keep coming back, a “packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow” as Orwell called it. These writers have succumbed to the aspirins, overdosing every time they produce a sentence. For professors at Swarthmore as elsewhere, direct writing betrays a simple mind.

But sometimes writers don’t know exactly what they want to say, so they resort to complication. If you want your reader to understand your thoughts, you should try to express yourself as clearly and coherently as possible. A reader is not entitled to an immediate understanding of an idea, but he or she is entitled to a sincere effort from the author in conveying it. I’m no admirer of The Communist Manifesto, but it’s a masterful piece of prose. It’s written in a sharp manner that lucidly condenses difficult ideas. A single reading of the document is enough to provoke lively debate. People can easily with engage the Manifesto’s arguments because Marx and Engels don’t hide behind rhetorical smokescreens. On the other hand, take someone like Derrida, who has a special reputation for density. I don’t think that deconstruction is any more complicated a theory than historical materialism, but Derrida articulates the former so opaquely that even now it’s still shrouded in a nebulous mist shielding it from a really gritty debate.

On another note, I have a feeling dense writers in the humanities harbor a secret inferiority complex about the natural sciences. Culture, literature, and even sociology do not have iron laws like those of physics, but treatises in these fields habitually imitate scientific writing. Butler’s “structural totalities as theoretical objects” tries to compete with “resonance structures as part of valence bond theory.” Such phrases hope to equate the humanities with the sciences, not in essence but in appearance. I think this is a foolish effort. It’s arguable that history and linguistics are technical disciplines, but I find it unnatural and wrong to view culture and literature in such terms. The humanities aren’t inferior to the sciences, but they just aren’t the sciences. There’s no need to pretend otherwise. Everyone would laugh at a dog that meows.

Denis Dutton argues that readers have “natural humility” when reading: that is, if they don’t understand a text, they’ll assume it’s because they aren’t intelligent enough. So when you’re forced to sludge through some academic magician’s dissonant incantations — as we all do every day—don’t think that if you don’t understand, you’re stupid. You’re not stupid; you just want the writer to show a little gratitude for the time and energy you’ve spent wading through his or her thoughts. And just as you groan when you meet a particularly dull gem like “subjective considerations of institutional hegemony,” try your best not to inflict this suffering onto others. When we think in our minds “If a country wants to change for the better, its government and people have to work together,” we should resist the urge to write, “If a country wishes to fundamentally transform its social order, it must necessarily include both its citizenry and administrative institutions in the transformational process.”

English is beautiful and alluring. Borges thought that the English language is one of the world’s finest because of its euphony and rich vocabulary. I don’t object to long words or complicated sentences; these can be put to good use. But the aim of academic study is to discover truth and express it. If we put the “verbose nature of contemporary stylistic tendencies” on trial, we’ll see that it’s just wordy writing.

 

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