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writing-sem-good
Credit: Alec Druggan

As a writing tutor, I often get to listen to students talk about their opinions on Penn’s writing seminar during my sessions with them. When I read Ilyse Reisman's article entitled “The Critical Writing Seminar needs to be looked at under critical review,” I was interested in the author's ideas for reforming the syllabus. However, the article painted a misleading and surface-level picture of Penn’s writing seminar, using data that is 10 years old. 

Reisman’s logic, although echoing commonly circulated complaints, does not fully delve into the reasons the writing seminar exists in its current form.

Asserting in an opinion piece that learning to write op-eds is not an important skill seems misguided. I believe that in order to be a successful community leader, as Penn hopes its students will be, one must be able to write a compelling opinion piece. 

Expressing opinions through persuasive writing is essential, and maintaining that op-ed writing is a “less useful” skill is simply untrue. In fact, several writing seminar students have gotten their op-eds published in noted publications.

Reisman takes aim at the time spent on the literature review during writing seminars, referring to it as an “arguably less important and less useful genre” of writing. However, the applicability of literature reviews transcends the classroom into the professional world. People pursuing certain majors may scoff at having to research and write literature reviews, but learning to write for an academic discourse community allows for greater understanding of and appreciation for research in general. 

This understanding is key to reading and digesting coursework, in addition to conducting one’s own research. As for time spent working, learning a new style of writing does not come easily to people. Learning new skills takes time, much as it takes time to learn a new language. 

I try to view every class I take with a constructively critical eye and take advantage of the course evaluation process; this extends to my experience with my writing seminar. However, Reisman’s “ideal writing seminar curriculum” bears a striking similarity to the current syllabus used in writing seminars. 

Students enter their writing seminars with many different ideas of what should be prioritized by their professors and by the program. The writing seminar can only cover so much, and the information it does cover is chosen by writing professionals who have taken the insights of many other faculty members from across disciplines into consideration.

Some students would prefer a writing seminar curriculum focused less on the job search, or more on creative writing or multimedia work. But pleasing everyone is simply not possible. Penn offers courses in creative writing, multimedia production, and many other writing-related topics in which passionate students may enroll. 

If I were crafting an ideal writing seminar curriculum, I would, as Reisman also mentions, focus more on cover letters and resumes, while eliminating the rule that the internships students write their cover letters for must be writing-related. This may be a personal preference, but I believe that learning to apply for a job is an incredibly useful skill, and I’m glad I learned how to do it in my first year of college.

I would also suggest that after a certain amount of time spent outlining in the style currently dictated by the syllabus, students could research different outlining styles and try to incorporate them into their personal research processes. According to a Fall 2013 Knowledge Transfer Study Penn Critical Writing Program, 88% of students who say their writing process has changed after taking a writing seminar cite outlining as an area where changes occurred. They may not use the exact style of outlining used in writing seminars, but this core idea is clearly key.

People learn in different ways. This idea is taken into account when teaching tutors how to work with students, but the writing seminar, even if it is not intentionally structured this way, can feel at times like a one-size-fits-all class. The Critical Writing program works hard to mold its program to suit the ways in which students learn, but this may not be evident to someone sitting in a writing seminar currently.

The writing seminar is never a finished product. However, the average student may not be aware of the work and research that goes into the writing seminar curriculum. Penn’s Critical Writing program was recognized just last year with a Writing Program Certificate of Excellence from the Conference on College Composition and Communication.

Although students may take issue with small aspects of the writing seminar (and can express these through course evaluations or further discussion with their professors), they should take time to reflect on the bigger picture of critical writing at Penn. They may then realize that the “critical review” of the writing seminar that Reisman calls for in her article is actually occurring, even as you read this.

JADEN BAUM is a College junior from Norfolk, Va. studying Communications and Political Science. 

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