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Reevaluating the effectiveness of writing seminar

Every Monday and Wednesday evenings, a handful of other freshmen and I meet for an hour and a half for our writing seminar. It makes sense. Many other colleges and universities have similarly mandatory courses implemented with the same goal of teaching “college writing.” These courses, including the University’s writing seminars, are meant to smooth out the crinkles of variation that exist across the high school experiences of every student by “focus[ing] on the skills necessary for effective critical reading and writing.” In my personal experience, however, the Princeton Writing Program has largely failed to achieve this goal.

Instead of providing a preliminary course with basic lessons and strategies that each student encounters and eventually masters, the current writing program presents distinctly variable experiences in each of its courses. Of course, each of the specific topics the different courses use as their lenses to teach writing are provided in order to lessen the stressful ordeal of enduring a class focused either specifically on writing principles or on a topic that the student finds boring. Thus, students can have their pick (or at least provide a loud suggestion) of writing seminars on topics as disparate as WRI 125: Genius and WRI 177: Human Rights in an Age of Terror. This diversity of choice is seemingly beneficial. Students enroll in a seminar that vaguely piques their interest; professors gain a classroom of students who should be at least a bit more engaged than if they had been entirely forced to be there.

Yet this diversity is precisely what leads to an unsuccessful writing program. Designed with the hopes of equalizing the differences in each student’s writing lexicon, the various choices of subject matter and distinct teaching styles required by such subjects are self-defeating. When I discuss my own writing seminar and compare it with those of my friends, it often seems the only real similarities are the titles of the major required assignments like Draft 1, Revision 1 and Draft 2, Revision 2. Some of my friends’ seminars seem to lean heavily on learning the devices included in the Writing Center’s lexicon while others seem to have barely delved further than the topic of “thesis” and “motive.” Some writing seminars even seem to focus more on the material they advertise in their course names rather than actually teaching students how to write essays at the collegiate level.

The current writing seminar goals include, in addition to writing, the skill of critical reading. The various focuses of each writing seminar do not directly detract from this objective; however, the unaligned teaching styles and the lack of uniformity in smaller assignments within each seminar still contribute to an ineffective approach to teaching critical reading. Just skimming over the reviews of each seminar from last semester reveals that a broad range of reading assignments exists across the course list; some boast extensive reading lists while others have virtually no reading beyond a few primary articles. There also seems to be a vast disparity in the required accountability for students in different writing seminars. I have several friends who have professors who require a reflection statement for each reading to ensure that the assignment is actually completed (and completed thoughtfully) while many courses have no such system and barely reference assigned readings after the fact. Students therefore are able to evade reading more than the bare minimum necessary to complete their three essays throughout the semester. I myself am guilty of this, as I am sure others are, when assignments that are actually due quickly trump unenforced readings. Admittedly, this is a failing on the part of the student. However, it is a reality that must be reconciled somehow in a course meant to strengthen critical reading skills; it is difficult to teach critical reading skills when it is possible that students are not even reading.

I am not necessarily suggesting that the writing program completely abolish the variety it offers to incoming freshmen. I do, however, believe that more uniformity must be incorporated into the existing system, structuring certain aspects of the courses to be congruous in the skills they teach students.

While certainly not a panacea, Becky Kreutter’s column in October of last year arguing for more in-depth teaching of research skills provides a suggestion of how the reformation of the writing program could begin. Instead of reiterating the simple search engine basics most of the student body already knows (being able to navigate Google is the reason I’m here; I wouldn’t have found the Common App otherwise!), teaching students higher-level research strategies would not only prepare students for later on in their Princeton careers but would also promote critical reading skills. After all, the foundation of critical reading is the ability to sift through information and pick out what is crucial and what is not. In addition to greater development of research techniques, the writing program could also implement across-course requirements such as universal micro-writing assignments and reading reflections.

Regardless of what action the University decides to take, the vastly different experiences freshmen have with their writing seminars suggest that the program is not achieving its goal.

Mitchell Hammer is a freshman from Phoenix, Ariz. He can be reached at mjhammer@princeton.edu.

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