Opinion » Column | Oct. 15
Freshman year, after dining hall acquaintances have exhausted standard small talk on the weather — “Winter’s coming” — and last Saturday’s happenings — “You will not believe how late I went to bed” — there is one topic left sure to fill any lulls in conversation. Bring up writing seminar, and you’re set. Whether you’re complaining, commiserating or anticipating with dread, the words will flow on paper like they never do at 3 a.m. when the first revision is due.
Writing seminar is designed, as its website states, to help students “build a solid foundation for their later work at Princeton, including junior independent work and the senior thesis.” The Outcomes Statement for writing seminar elucidates this goal, targeting thesis development, research and bibliographical skills, organized and expressive ideas, active revision and dialogue creation. While writing seminar does a decent job of addressing the writing aspect of independent work, it prepares students poorly for what it means to do independent research.
No matter what type of high school students come from, resources were sparse compared to the diversity of databases, journals, books, audio files, personal notes and more that fill our 13 libraries and countless online platforms. In high school, research consisted of Google quests and perhaps the occasional key-term search in JSTOR or EBSCOhost. These are the skills we bring to college.
Currently, writing seminars attempt to teach students about research. Freshmen venture to Firestone, meet a librarian and have a conversation about Princeton resources. These skills are supposedly internalized in the end-of-the-year research paper. After dutifully hearing about Princeton’s resources and the usefulness of reaching out to librarians, we turn back to Articles+ and start in with the key terms. This can work for a year or two when papers are based on in-class work, but when junior year comes around these high school skills no longer get the job done.
Some may argue that junior seminars are where students can learn more concretely about research methodology. After all, isn’t that what many junior seminars are designed for? For example, junior seminar taught me to search for relevant peer-reviewed journals to see what topics are being discussed in a given field and to create a citation tree to find the most common and influential articles in a topic.
By the time junior seminar comes up, however, students are already expected to be ready to start independent, unique, high-level research. At this point, seminars begin to teach students specific research methods related to their concentration. A basic level of research proficiency is assumed. The problem is, it is just not there for most people. In order to better prepare students for independent work, the stated goal of writing seminar, it should focus equally on academic writing and academic research.
It would be more productive for both students and their advisers down the road if, instead of writing three papers over the semester, students wrote one small paper, spent the next month or more practicing concrete research skills and then finished up with a research paper. The research assignments would necessarily be overly pedantic, asking students to find a specific dataset such as “Ghanaian public opinion on the United States’ war on terrorism.” Professors could assign students a particular topic and have students identify the major names in that field, sketch out the development of the topic, summarize the history and talk about one potential field of research that could be explored. The end goal in these assignments would be high-quality research and would not involve arguing a thesis. This change would require some extra work from librarians and writing seminar professors, but then less guidance would be required in later years.
Writing seminar is the ideal time and venue for getting students to think critically about their writing skills and more importantly about their research skills. Freshmen come to campus expecting to make changes to their habits in order to adapt to college, whereas juniors facing JP deadlines rush through with old, inefficient habits. Integrating research into the curriculum would also allow students to learn, fail and relearn research skills without the time pressure of independent work, allowing writing seminar to live up to its mission.
Rebecca Kreutter is a Wilson School major from Singapore, Singapore. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.