The Chronicle of Higher Education: Students
January 3, 2003

Why Johnny Can't Write, Even Though He Went to Princeton

Many top colleges fear that their students lack basic composition skills Ask Clare Gould about her freshman course in writing, and the bright, pleasant senior at Princeton University makes no attempt to hide her disgust. "It was rotten," she says.

She describes a disorganized class taught by a graduate student who was killing time and his students' enthusiasm. "I have never heard of anyone who had a good or even passable experience in their writing course," she says.

Realizing the deep dissatisfaction among students like Ms. Gould about how writing was taught at the university, Princeton ditched the program last year and began afresh. It took writing courses away from inexperienced graduate students, hired a group of lecturers to take their places, and created a slew of new, required, topic-based courses. It was a radical step, but one that many believe was long overdue.

More than a few top colleges have made similar moves in recent years, or are in the process of doing so. Some, like Princeton and Duke University, have started over from scratch. Others, like Columbia University, are proceeding with caution. And there are those that, like Brown University and Bowdoin College, know that what they're doing now doesn't work but are not sure how to proceed. While the situations and solutions differ, officials at each of these prestigious institutions have arrived at the same conclusion: Their college has not been doing a good job of teaching students how to write.

Report after report -- from the one issued in 1998 by the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates to this year's National Survey of Student Engagement, an extensive look at student attitudes -- has emphasized the importance of undergraduate writing. It's hard to find a college president or liberal-arts dean who can't give a solemn, impromptu lecture on the subject. In short, everyone seems to agree.

So why is it that, even at the nation's best colleges, the teaching of writing has long been treated less like a high priority and more like an afterthought? And if that neglectful attitude is beginning to change, as seems to be the case, what took so long?

One answer is that writing instructors don't get much respect in academe. "There's this image that it's janitorial cleanup or service work," says Nancy Sommers, director of expository writing at Harvard University. Another is that many students view writing requirements as just one more hoop to jump through before they can don the cap and gown. Those problems are not unrelated: Because writing programs are frequently ignored, their quality suffers. Students then end up stuck in classes that waste their time and try their patience.

As to what has prompted this recent round of reform, some say it's Ivy-see, Ivy-do. "When somebody does something, all the other institutions perk up their ears," says Eric Schneider, associate director of academic affairs at the University of Pennsylvania.

Administrators also point to an increase in the number of complaints from professors. "We've been hearing from faculty members that students are having trouble with their writing," says Paul B. Armstrong, dean of the college at Brown.

What kind of trouble? Professors cite a host of writing-related shortcomings among students, most often their inability to construct the sort of lengthy, sophisticated research papers required in upper-division courses. "Almost everyone comes in well-trained to gather research in the library," says Judith A. Swan, a lecturer in Princeton's writing program. "But almost none of them are capable of turning that into a real paper with a thesis and an argument."

The trend isn't limited to top-ranked colleges. "I haven't seen a newly revised curriculum plan that failed to emphasize writing," says Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which advises colleges on curriculum reform. But the debate over these issues at elite colleges is instructive, writing experts say, because these institutions aren't finding easy solutions despite having top students and bountiful resources, which several of them are now using to promote reforms.

'A Bunch of Bad Classes'

At Princeton, students called them the "W" courses. Since the 1960s, the university had required undergraduates to take one course with a "W" after its course number, a designation that was reserved for writing-intensive offerings. Originally, those courses were taught only in the English department. That changed in the late 1980s, when courses outside the English department became eligible, greatly expanding the number of options to satisfy the requirement.

While intended to encourage the teaching of writing within a variety of disciplines -- an approach that many experts favor -- the effort failed. "Some students got superb instruction, and some got very little," says Howard N. Dobin, associate dean of the college. "There was a general acknowledgment that we were not doing as well in this as we could."

That's putting it too kindly, according to Ms. Gould, the Princeton senior, who majors in biology. "It has a history of being limited to a bunch of bad classes," she says. Her father, James Gould, a professor of biology at Princeton, was so upset by his daughter's "absolutely terrible" experience that he volunteered to teach in the new program. "If we want students to write decent papers or honors theses -- which are required here -- then it's essential that we teach them to write well," he says.

As the chorus of complaints grew louder, Princeton responded by bringing in a group of outside reviewers. They came to the same conclusion that professors and students had already reached: the "W" program didn't work.

To fix it, the university last year hired 20 lecturers, who had some experience teaching writing, on one-year renewable contracts of up to five years. Princeton also made taking a topic-based writing course separate from the other 30 requirements that students must meet; until last year, a writing course could also fulfill other graduation requirements. And Princeton created dozens of topic-based courses, like "Bandits in Myth and History" and "Dracula," in which the subjects are intended to provide fodder for students' essays. The emphasis in these courses, which are outside any department, is not on learning the reading material but on learning to write.

Duke students, too, had been saddled for years with a failed writing program. Since the mid-1980s, Duke had used a method, developed by a now-retired English professor, that was based on peer interaction. In 1999, the university revamped its requirement. "It was clear to the faculty that it was broken. It was clear to the students who took it. It was clear to the parents of those students and their grandparents," says Robert J. Thompson, dean of the liberal-arts college at Duke.

So if even grandparents knew, why did it take so long to act? Mr. Thompson chalks up the long delay to "inertia." In that, Duke is far from unique. Writing programs are notoriously difficult to remake, and few officials look forward to the battles that will no doubt ensue once any change is proposed. "Generally, people feel it's a dean's nightmare, because you have so many constituencies that are unhappy," says Ms. Sommers of Harvard, who was one of Duke's outside reviewers.

Both Duke and Princeton ended up with programs that resemble Harvard's. Both chose to put the teaching of freshman writing in the hands of instructors hired on contract (Harvard calls them "preceptors"). That takes the courses away from graduate students, who usually view them as a chore anyway, and gives them to instructors who have already earned their doctorates and who have some experience teaching writing. It is an expensive solution -- Mr. Thompson has dubbed it "the million-dollar difference" -- and one that most institutions could not afford.

Duke also requires students to take two writing-intensive courses in their majors. (Such courses are defined simply as including a "significant writing component.") The university took its cue from Cornell's writing program, which emphasizes writing in the disciplines, meaning that the teaching burden is shouldered by all departments, not just English. Cornell has also managed to persuade faculty members to participate by tying the amount of graduate-student funds a department receives to the number of freshman writing seminars its professors teach. It's a strategy that is widely admired, if not widely imitated, by other colleges.

The verdict is still out on whether the new programs at Duke and Princeton will transform their students into more lucid, thoughtful writers. Student reaction at Princeton is mixed. "It wasn't the greatest class I've taken, but it wasn't a waste of time either," says Marcus Catsouphes, who took the course "Vietnam in Fact, Film and Fiction."

Active and Passive

Some competitors are still in the early stages of reform. At Columbia, back in the early 1990s, a committee of outside reviewers was convened to evaluate the writing program. The panel found it sorely lacking and said as much in a report. The university's response? Do nothing. Then, two years ago, an internal review committee was formed. It found that almost everyone strongly disliked the freshman writing requirement, and that it contained a number of "absurdities," including a ban on assigned readings. The policy was intended to place the emphasis on writing, but it backfired: Students didn't have anything to write about. The committee recommended lifting the reading ban, hiring a new director, and involving faculty members rather than leaving the teaching to graduate students. "We were fully prepared for our report to get filed in the backroom and gather dust," says Michael Scammell, a professor of nonfiction creative writing, who led the committee.

But in fact, Columbia has acted on some of the recommendations. Joseph Bizup, formerly co-director of the writing program at Yale University, was hired this summer. While most students are still in the old freshman writing program, about 20 percent are taking topic-based courses, in which some reading is assigned. So far, the response has been favorable. "There was a sense that writing was dislocated from the rest of the curriculum. We want to integrate it into the core curriculum," says Mr. Bizup, referring to Columbia's famously rigorous set of general requirements.

Brown officials, too, are struggling with how to make sure their students can write well. But Brown is at the other end of the spectrum in terms of educational philosophy. While Columbia is known for its general requirements, Brown is known for allowing students to choose their own curriculums. While that freedom is part of the university's identity, it makes a writing requirement impossible.

Until recently, Brown identified incoming freshmen whose writing needed extra attention by looking at their admissions essays. But because many students receive help writing those essays, that turned out to be a poor indicator. So this year Brown abandoned the practice. The university still gives professors the option of marking students as "writing deficient" as part of their grades. Those students are encouraged, although not required, to sign up for an expository-writing course. "It seems OK on the books," says Rhoda L. Flaxman, director of the writing program at Brown.

In practice, however, the strategy is a bust. "Faculty haven't been using it," says Mr. Armstrong, dean of the college. Apparently, many professors believe that marking a student deficient carries an unfair stigma. Josh Gang, a senior majoring in American literature, thinks that Brown officials might be more worried that marking a large number of students deficient would reflect poorly on the university. "It wouldn't surprise me if they were afraid to deem students as unqualified," he says.

Whatever the reason, the result is that only a handful of students receive help with their writing, even though Mr. Armstrong says faculty members complain to him about it all the time.

While officials look at alternatives, the dean has sent out letters encouraging professors to use the "writing deficient" option when it is called for. "It's not a crisis, but it is a growing concern," he says.

Concern is also growing at Penn, which has sought a director for its undergraduate writing program for more than a year. The trouble is that the university hasn't been able to decide what kind of program it wants, which makes picking a director tricky.

For now, students can satisfy the university's writing requirement in one of two ways -- either by taking a writing course taught by a graduate student, or by taking two courses designated as writing-intensive within a department. Most students choose to take one course instead of two. "I don't think it's been presented to our students as an intellectually stimulating and important enterprise. I think they see it as another requirement they have to fill," says Rebecca Bushnell, associate dean of Penn's college of arts and letters and acting director of the writing program. Neither option has been particularly effective in improving student writing, according to Penn officials, which has frustrated professors.

Once a permanent director is hired, which officials say will happen soon, Penn plans to announce an overhaul of its writing program.

Likewise, officials at Bowdoin say major changes to its undergraduate writing program will be announced soon. The college already offers freshman writing seminars, but they are not required.

As at other institutions, Bowdoin's decision is prompted by concern among professors that some students lack the skills to write lengthy, sophisticated research papers. "There is a sense that we can do better," says Craig A. McEwen, dean for academic affairs. He adds that the college plans to emphasize writing in the disciplines, rather than a more general approach.

Reform-minded college officials share the hope that the changes they are making will finally give writing the attention and respect it deserves. "Writing is the edifice on which the rest of education rests," says Penn's Mr. Schneider. "If we don't do that well, you have to wonder what we do do well."

The Chronicle of Higher Education
Section: Students
Volume 49, Issue 17, Page A39
January 3, 2003