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Valerie Ross, director of Penn's Critical Writing Program, envisions her program as an orchestra, with "many different instruments, each splendid in its own right, but all playing the same tune."

And in an effort to harmonize the final product, the Critical Writing Program fine-tuned its writing seminars over the summer. During the past few months, the program piloted several courses using the research sequence, and feedback from students and instructors has been positive, Ross wrote in an e-mail.

In comparison with the structure of past writing seminars, the new program will feature two distinct phases.

The first half of the seminars will continue to focus on introductory critical reasoning, Ross explained. Students will learn the basic procedures of reasoned discourse, as well as reviewing techniques that eventually teach them how to self-diagnose, Ross added in an e-mail.

By the second half of each course, "students are ready to begin their apprenticeship in critical writing," Ross wrote. In addition to the original curriculum, the courses will now include a research-writing sequence, Ross explained.

Still addressing its over-arching subject, each seminar will tackle the research component through the lens of a non-fiction text.

Though writing seminar professors once had more free range during the latter part of the semester, Ross claims that the research component of the structure intends to provide a more cohesive, uniform approach across all critical writing courses.

She explained that the second half of the revised writing seminars will aim to provide the tools for students to read and write "like a member of a discourse community."

"We sought an approach that made sense across disciplines and areas of faculty expertise, suited to the knowledge and ability of incoming Penn freshmen," said Ross.

With this goal in mind, the program continues to refine the critical writing coursework, aiming to provide a "strong foundation and ample guidance" through the Writing Requirement.

The change in program stems in part from the desire to maintain this consistency and quality across the program. Each year, the seminars undergo a similar feedback process, and Ross said this year is no different.

All eight of the available freshmen seminar classes offered this summer are testing the modifications, in anticipation that they will act as models for the fall courses.

Ultimately, Ross stressed that the requirement is something all students - not just English majors - should look to as a blessing, noting that the increasing frequency of written communication is something students should realize as they approach the professional world.

"It is one of the few, if not only, activities that engages every aspect of the brain," she said. "There is no skill more critical to success in the 21st century."

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