Distribution requirements at Swarthmore are an opportunity for students to branch outside of their academic comfort zones and experience the breadth of a liberal arts education. According to the college, distribution requirements “aim to enhance resourcefulness, serious curiosity, open-mindedness, perspective, logical coherence, and insight.” The division-wide distribution requirements achieve this goal; however, it’s time to reevaluate the efficacy of the writing requirement. This requirement instructs students to take three writing, or “W”-designated courses spread between at least two different divisions. Not only are there a limited number of W-designated classes offered each semester, but also the criteria for which classes are designated as writing courses are incredibly arbitrary. The writing requirement is outdated, and the inability for students to appeal for writing credit places an extra burden on students whose schedules are already filled with writing-heavy classes.
The rationale behind the writing requirement is that W-designated courses focus on teaching writing skills at an introductory level, with an emphasis on the writing process and “teaching writing—not just doing it”. The college recommends that students complete all three writing credits in their first three semesters at Swarthmore. The criteria for a course to be designated as a writing course include twenty pages of writing, students working with professors and Writing Associates (WAs) to revise their work, and an emphasis on the construction of arguments. While the introductory nature of W-designated courses is important for first-year students who have limited experience writing in college, the three-course requirement is excessive for students whose focus of study includes classes which teach writing and argumentation but are not W-designated because they lack the WA reiterative process. Furthermore, the college maintains that the pass-fail first semester at Swarthmore is meant for students to explore potential academic areas of interest, but the repetitive nature of the three writing courses, coupled with the recommendation for students to complete the writing requirement in their first three semesters at Swarthmore, place extra constraints on underclassmen’s abilities to explore potential academic fields of interest.
For students who are unable to complete the writing requirement in their first three semesters at Swarthmore, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to complete the writing requirement as they begin to focus on their areas of study. Students must find writing courses that fit into their schedules while simultaneously taking higher-level courses to fulfill major requirements. This places a heavier burden on students whose majors are in the humanities and social sciences, as they are already taking writing- and reading-heavy courses. Furthermore, many upper-level courses also focus on the process of writing, meet (or exceed) the regular page count for W-designated courses, and focus on the construction of logical arguments; the notion that only W-designated courses teach these skills is unfounded.
It is critical that professors and course instructors evaluate their syllabi to consider whether or not they should request their courses to be writing-designated. Many courses at the college already focus on the process of writing by emphasizing revision and meeting with professors and WAs; the reality of these courses not counting towards writing credit simply because they are not designated “W” on the course catalog means that non-first-year students who have not fulfilled the writing requirement must go out of their way to pick among the limited W-designated courses to fit into their schedules.
The college should consider both lowering the amount of writing credits that students need to graduate and/or expanding the number of W-designated courses to prevent first-year students’ schedules from becoming inundated with introductory courses and to allow for a broader exploration of academics at Swarthmore. Moreover, the college should be more flexible in its implementation of the writing requirement by allowing students to appeal for writing credit (as they do with the foreign language requirement) if they already have experience with improving their writing in non-W-designated courses. The current writing credit system is needlessly obtuse, and could use an update.