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One stormy night, my Boy Scout troop was attempting to cook a meal when we came up against an insurmountable obstacle: our camping stove. While it was a cutting-edge model, its instruction manual was also far too complex for a pack of 13-year-olds to figure out. So we sat, cold and hungry — feeling like the stove was useless — until one of the adults, having despaired of teaching us a life lesson, took over. The Penn writing seminar is a little like that stove: it can be a wonderfully effective tool, but only if its applications are made more clear.

When I began talking to students about writing seminars, it was consistently brought up that the program wasn’t teaching anything they could use in the rest of their classes. The seminars’ assignments — 500-word, three-paragraph exercises — are nothing like the multi-page papers that are standard fare for other courses.

College and Engineering junior Robert Hass summed up the feelings of many students. “The course teaches rigid formalisms and it isn’t clear how one should apply this. They teach a particular skill without application,” he said. Nestorian Order is all well and good, but why aren’t writing seminars showing us how to write the papers undergraduates encounter regularly?

Because the scholars and professionals Penn students aspire to be don’t write “papers” in the sense we think of them, said Valerie Ross, director of the Penn Critical Writing Program. Graduate students and scholars write in chunks, which are then integrated into a single piece. These chunks consist of the type of writing taught in the writing seminars. Imagine that instead of writing on a different topic each week, you wrote your exercises as smaller parts of a single larger paper which contained two-reasons and straw-man sections, and you get a better idea of the position to which the writing seminar seeks to bring its learners. This is the way in which academics write papers, with counter-arguments and concession rather than the more rigid positions that most undergraduate papers require students to stake out.

Ultimately, the writing seminar’s objective is to teach the rhetoric skills that go into the larger papers students will eventually write. The new research sequences in the seminars have helped make this objective clearer. In these new portions, students work with University specialists to perform close readings of texts, much in the same way graduate students and academics do before they stake a position. This is important because jumping into an ongoing conversation about a text without doing this necessary groundwork is similar to talking about the Phillies pitching lineup with two diehard fans if you’ve never even read Sports Illustrated. You sound — as I can attest from many awkward chats — wholly ignorant and out of place in the conversation.

While writing seminars have distinct and important purposes, the complaints about their applicability are not necessarily meaningless or even wrong. A good set of tools means nothing if people feel the tools are useless, or feel as though they have not been presented with any tools at all. And if people feel they’re not using what they’ve learned, they probably aren’t. To make the most of the writing program, additions should be made so that every Penn student understands the method behind the seeming madness. Beyond the addition of the research sequences, professors should explain how the skills taught in writing seminars will help students write the kind of papers they can expect in graduate school and beyond.

My Boy Scout troop couldn’t figure out how to make the stove work. It took someone with experience to get the best use out of it. The same thing is true of writing seminars; we need to be taught how to use them to get the most out of them.

Sam Bieler is a College sophomore from Ridgewood, N.J. He is a member of the NEC. His e-mail address is Bieler’s Day Off appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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