T here is probably no sing le course on-campus that is as profoundly hated as the writing seminar. Organic chemistry plagues the pre-med, math is feared by many, BEPP is the bane of the Wharton freshman, but the writing seminar is the common enemy of all.
What makes the student quarrel with the seminar particularly bitter is the fact that there seems to be little value in its hallmark time-devouring homework assignments. Even those that say the seminar “isn’t that hard” rarely give it a positive review. Some told me that they learned nothing new. Others declared the seminar positively harmed their ability to write.
By the time I took Writing Seminar 039 last semester, I was pretty certain I was in for a time-gobbling academic farce. But — with the pragmatic consideration that the writing seminar, death and taxes are all best approached with a positive attitude — I steeled myself to take notes and smile in class.
The result was not that I came to love the writing seminar, but I did, at least, receive an A in the course and the dubious honor of publication in 3808. Near the end of the semester, I asked my professor why I’d written a 1,500-word “explanatory essay” that monotonously compared the opinions of three or four different last names on the cause of WWI. He explained to me that the exercises in the writing seminar trained us in the skills that a diversity of professors considered necessary for more advanced writing. My explanatory essay, for example, was similar in structure to the first half of a typical doctoral thesis in his field.
At first I found this encouraging, but I couldn’t help wondering later on how many of the people in my class were likely to get a doctorate in the humanities. And the explanatory essay was just one of many assignments we faced. What about the inane daily post, the summary and outlining, the justificatory essay?
The fact is that good writing is not predominately about following Nestorian order or ensuring your thesis is one sentence long and at the end of your introductory paragraph. Variations on these simple structures have been used to good effect by brilliant thinkers, but — as Professor Rebecca Schuman wittily pointed out in a Slate article — all the structure-driven exercises in the world can’t make good an essay written with 45 borrowed minutes of sexting time from 3 to 4 a.m.
The writing seminar — like any other structure-driven course — tends to distract students from writing well because they assume (correctly, to some extent) that they can “get the grade” by putting three invalid points in Nestorian order or by ensuring that their patently ludicrous thesis isn’t bifurcated. At the same time, they are sure to receive a gentle reprimand if they become excited about their topic (like I did at one point) and start writing outside of the box.
The solution to this problem — in my opinion — is bifurcated. On the one hand, students who were never taught to summarize what they read in their own words or to separate their ideas into reasons and support them with facts, might find the writing seminar valuable. To know some kind of structure is better than none at all — even if one’s ideas are a long way from inspired.
But many students came to Penn already highly familiar with these techniques. Such students should be allowed to test out of the writing seminar, just as they might test out of Math 104. More advanced courses in which professors assume the ability to “make three points” and demand that students produce “good points well made” are likely to do more for the average freshman than the writing seminar.
Most students at Penn — it seems — consider the writing seminar a waste from the outset and consequently, close their minds to doing any real writing when they take it. They learn precisely nothing.
While theoretically they might have learned something if they’d had a better attitude, there was very little in the writing seminar to encourage them to do so. Such students needed a different course — a course that would challenge them to do real critical thinking and grade them on the basis of clarity and insig ht.
Jeremiah Keenan is a College sophomore from China studying mathematics. His email address is email@example.com. “Keen on the Truth” appears every Wednesday.Comments powered by Disqus
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