Two Penn students have taken their coursework beyond the classroom and put a new spin on the Critical Writing Seminar in the process.
College junior Dan Eder and College sophomore Sophia Witte are making their research proposal for a new Academically Based Community Service course into an actual class starting next fall. Last year, the two worked together on a research proposal for the ABCS seminar “Urban-University Community Relations.”
Their assignment was to create a program that combines academics and community involvement. Along with one other student they presented the concept of a writing seminar course that will incorporate a community service aspect.
“Through theoretical research and practical work on the project, they learned a great deal, and I was very impressed and pleased,” course professor and Director of the Netter Center Ira Harkavy said.
But the two didn’t stop there — the hypothetical writing seminar slowly became a reality even after the course ended. Through a partnership with the Critical Writing Program, the College of Arts and Sciences’ Dean’s Advisory Board, and the Netter Center, they developed the idea further.
The course, which will be offered in the fall, adopts the normal Critical Writing Seminar format with a community-focused twist: each week, students will spend one hour acting as college counselors in West Philadelphia high schools. This component of the class is coordinated with the Netter Center’s existing college coaching program.
Besides benefiting college-bound teenagers in West Philadelphia high schools, the class will allow Penn students to apply their experiences to coursework. When drafting writing seminar staples such as the justificatory and explanatory essays, students can use anecdotal evidence and observations from their community service time to support arguments in place of additional scholarly works.
Witte, a Daily Pennsylvanian staff reporter, and Eder, a former DP staff member, both say this method will bring additional meaning to a course that can seem sometimes formulaic and pointless to some students.
“A lot of people hated the writing seminar,” Witte said. “I didn’t love every assignment, but I really cared about the content of the course. I believe this will be an opportunity for students to not only enjoy the content of their course, but also have a more enriching experience as they integrate their experiences in the community into their work.”
“A lot of the exercises seem kind of meaningless,” Eder added. “But if you can apply them to outside work that you’re doing, they fit very nicely.”
Witte says the course also addresses another problem: the lack of Penn student involvement within the surrounding West Philadelphia community.
“We don’t think that enough Penn students are engaged with the local community,” Witte said. “There are opportunities to apply academics and just their own personal interests to helping the community.”
Given this focus, the development of a course that targets mostly freshmen is key: As a traditional first-year course, this Critical Writing Seminar introduces students to the format of ABCS courses early in their academic career at Penn.
“A lot of students don’t hear about these opportunities until they’re juniors and seniors, but they’re leaving,” Witte said. “The best idea we had for that is really targeting freshman, and I think the writing seminar is perfect for that.”
Although the hybrid seminar is new, its student and faculty creators say this course will continue after the initial semester next fall. According to Witte, the Critical Writing Program is tentatively planning to use the pilot seminar as a model for a range of similar courses.
“The first time is always a test, you learn from it — how much sense it makes, what the problems are, what needs to change, what should remain the same,” Harkavy said. “Certainly, this is the pilot run; it’s the first time through it, so we’ll be learning. But the expectation is this will be the first of a sustained, ongoing course in writing.”
As this seminar continues to evolve, the developers of the ABCS-component course hope that Penn students will continue to engage with their community on greater scale.
“It’s a great way to kind of expose freshman students to all of the opportunities to engage civically within the community right when they get here,” Witte said.
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