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Credit: Alec Druggan

In 2003, the Critical Writing Program formed to solve Penn’s “lack of centralization” problem. It sought to integrate all of Penn’s writing resources and, in doing so, required all undergraduates to take a one-semester writing seminar.

However, while the intentions behind the writing seminar seemed to be good, an analysis of Penn Course Review data as of 2009 reveals writing seminar courses to be consistently rated well below average when it comes to “course quality” and well above average when it comes to “work required.” 

To begin with, the courses have appealing titles such as “The Mind of a Dog,” “Law and Order,” “Uncreative Writing,” and “How Coke Explains,” but in reality have little to do with the writing "topic" and more to do with completing general, time-consuming writing assignments. The students end up learning more about how to read/analyze a book that discusses a singular aspect of the topic they chose, than they do learning about the topic itself. Spending too much time outlining the author’s argument on the topic, while important, doesn’t allot much time for students to discuss, engage with, and find their own relationship with the topic.

But the writing seminar curriculum shouldn’t change simply because the course titles are misleading. Many Penn students find that the actual work that is done during the class is not beneficial to them. While there are aspects of the writing seminar that are arguably helpful in general and good to know, such as logical reasoning, how to support different types of arguments, and the career-oriented assignments, students don’t feel that those few aspects are enough to make an entire semester feel useful. Rather, they end up feeling like the information could have been learned in half the time, and consequently complain that they are not getting the most out of their writing seminar.

Admittedly, some of the curriculum is dedicated to writing for job applications — such as requiring students to write resumes and cover letters — which is perhaps the most beneficial part of the writing seminar. However, ironically, these important skills are given the least amount of time, whereas the writing seminar spends most of its time teaching students to write literature reviews and op-eds — seemingly less useful skills for the future. 

The best writing seminar curriculum should prioritize writing that will be necessary for students in the future, while also teaching students how to write for their current classes.

An ideal curriculum for the writing seminar would include students learning:

  1. How to write resumes
  2. How to write cover letters
  3. How to write emails to a boss or employer, whether it be to introduce yourself, thank them, ask them for recommendations or promotions, etc.
  4. How to write a literature review 
  5. How to write an opinion piece
  6. How to write a research paper
  7. How to read, annotate, and outline complicated texts

While this seems extensive for a one-semester curriculum, it should be doable if the curriculum spends less time forcing students to adopt PowerNotes note-taking, teaching about arguably less important and less useful genres, and making students conduct an excessive number of peer reviews. If these changes are implemented, the critical writing seminar would actually be productive for Penn students, and not just  a requirement to check off their list.

ILYSE REISMAN is a College sophomore from Millburn, N.J. studying English and Music. Her email address is

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