Writing Program restructures for first year students

By: Rachel Brustein
This year, first year students will experience a new curriculum for college writing.
“The old system didn’t serve certain students very well,” Director of the Writing Program Phaye Poliakoff-Chen said, referring to students who placed into English 103. In the previous system, students placed into English 103, 104, or 105 to start. Usually, 105 students took one semester of writing, 104 students took two, and 103 students took three.
“If you just keep giving them more and more writing classes, and they already feel stigmatized by being in the low level, then you’re just sort of perpetuating this cycle that they already had,” Poliakoff-Chen added. The extra writing classes did not appear to benefit these students as well as the department would have liked.
“It was really frustrating…I felt like I was doing the same thing in each class,” Sammy Eisenberg ’16 said, who began in 103. “ “It just has a negative connotation to it,” she explained, furthering this stigmatization of such students.
On the flip side of that, students placed into 105 only took one semester of college writing. “It felt very elitist,” Maxine Roberts ’16 said, who began in 105. “It really did feel like a hierarchy…like we were in the most important class,” she added, which made her feel uncomfortable at the time.
The most common track, beginning in English 104 and then taking English 105, was not working for every student either. “There was a lot of overlap between…104 and 105. There was no longer a really clear boundary between what each one was supposed to do,” Poliakoff-Chen explained.
The previous structure was not a negative experience for everyone. “Over the years, these classes served many students well, and many students have expressed gratitude for what they learned,” said Mina Brunyate, a Writing Fellow.
Conversations about a new structure have occurred over the past several years, but the most work happened in the past two years. “We knew it was time to change it, and it’s been really exciting,” Writing Fellow Susan Garrett said.
In the spring of 2014 when the Writing Program did a departmental self-study, an external reviewer came in and described the program as “out of step” with the rest of the country. “We were behind by a lot,” Poliakoff-Chen said.
The Writing Program faculty did a lot of research, attended conferences, and collaborated to design a new curriculum. They also looked at student feedback. Poliakoff-Chen met with students about the changes, and the faculty looked at feedback from previous course evaluations.
A student input group for students of color was formed in order to provide specific feedback to ensure the new model will meet the needs of those students. This began after last semester’s “Frustrations” video, in which a student of color expressed a negative experience with an English professor. Poliakoff-Chen organized the group, and plans to continue it in order “to make sure we are accessible to all students, and that we’re not making the same mistakes.”
“I noticed a trend of people ending up in 103 and 106, a lot of students of color,” said Nyasha Mooney-McCoy ‘16. This set them further back from their peers.
“Anything that negatively affects anybody is going to affect people of color twice as hard just because life is already more difficult,” Roberts said.
“They [students of color] felt like the program was working against them,” Mooney-McCoy said. Language use was another issue. “If a certain standard of English is to be taught, it should be prefaced as such, and not [said] that any other style of writing is wrong…there should be more room for students to write or speak the way that they’re used to, as well as learning a more standardized English,” she added.
In the new model, all students take Writing 181 (WRT 181), a three credit course, and Studio 101 (WRT 101B), a one credit studio course. The strongest writers will take Writing 181 Honors (WRT 181H) and WRT 101B. As of right now, WRT 181 and WRT 101B do not have to be taken in a particular order, although that might change. Developing writers take an additional 1 credit studio, Studio 101 A (WRT 101A). These students will take WRT 181 concurrently with WRT 101A in the fall, and WRT 101B in the spring.
A major component to both WRT 181 and the studio courses is that all students take them pass/no pass. This originally stemmed from an idea at a Writing Program faculty meeting last fall. Papers will not receive letter grades, but rather marks of “excellent”, “revise”, or “rewrite”. The focus of students’ papers will be on feedback, not grades, enabling them to further develop their writing.
In the fall of their sophomore year, students will take a writing-intensive course in any discipline, called a Writing Enriched Curriculum (WEC) course. Many of these courses already exist, and there will be a list of WEC courses from which students can choose. There will be a few new WEC courses in the Writing department. This system will reinforce that “when you learn about writing, it applies to other disciplines, and you carry over those same skills,” Poliakoff-Chen explained. After students take a WEC course, they will submit a portfolio, which will be read by a committee of faculty who will grant students College Writing Proficiency (CWP).
In the past, the process for obtaining CWP was unclear for some students. “Professors need[ed] to do a little bit better of a job explaining what the requirements are [for CWP],” Giselle Rotenberg ‘16 commented. “I don’t think it’s really fair that the English department has to give us proficiency. I think it should be done by major
“We wanted to make it [CWP] more meaningful, so that you’re proficient, which takes more time than just passing 105,” Poliakoff-Chen said.
Another significant change in the program is the decision to eliminate the use of themed first year writing courses. “When the themes worked, they worked well, and they were great…[and] there were some disasters,” Poliakoff-Chen pointed out. Now, “the theme of the new WRT 181 course is writing…when I made that announcement to the full faculty back in December, everyone clapped,” she added.
The final component of the program is a senior capstone course, which is still being developed. Some capstones will be by majors, and others will be interdisciplinary. In addition to transitioning from high school into college, a goal for this program is to “think deliberately” about transitioning out of college, said Barbara Roswell, Assistant Professor of Academic Writing. The goals are “much more ambitious” she added, though the Writing Program faculty appears to be optimistic about the new structure.
The Writing Program faculty hopes that the redesign of the Writing Program will encourage students to think of writing as a skill used throughout college and beyond, not just something you do as a first year student. “I think the whole goal is to…keep people interested in writing so they will continue to improve rather than get exhausted and give up,” said Emily Clarin ’16.


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