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Columnist Jack Lakis calls on Penn to improve the curriculum of the Critical Writing Program.

Credit: Sydney Curran

Before students establish their majors and concentrations, each undergraduate begins their degree by fulfilling general education requirements. While the College has its sectors and Wharton has its fundamentals, there is one requirement universal to all four of Penn’s undergraduate schools: the critical writing seminar.

Writing seminars are an integral part of Penn’s first-year experience. While many students on our campus joke that the only point of writing seminar was to experience an awkward ‘situationship,’ these classes are poised to set one up for professional and academic success. They have a duty to prepare students for their time in school and beyond. However, for many members of our campus, the writing seminar is falling short of that goal.

The standardization of all writing seminars solidifies them as a curricular oddity at Penn. With next semester’s topics ranging from biotechnology to reality TV, writing seminars present a broad spectrum of concepts. Yet, all students complete the same Canvas modules and submit the same assignments. The curriculum itself is strong, as it centers two principal writing genres: white paper and op-ed. Each of these styles have immense pre-professional applications. White papers are used broadly in business, marketing, policy, law, and more. As well, op-eds mark a crucial element of journalistic writing that teaches students how to communicate in a conversational style.

That curriculum also includes many valuable lessons, containing everything from detailed instructions for citation methods to a discussion on the significance of languaging. However, students rarely gain remarkable insight or skill development from these exercises. The course is too broad and the assignments don’t delve deep enough into each topic, leading to great topical potential, but meaningless depth. Students aren’t left with much to work with. In fact, many parts of the class are only explored in online modules, never through in-class instruction.

Worse, with the exception of summative submissions like the midterm and final portfolios, almost none of the course’s assignments are evaluated on quality. When nearly every assignment is graded on a scale of completion, not effort, there is no motivation for students to engage with material. These lessons over more niche topics are meaningless when students don’t care to give them the time and attention they deserve. If students are left with little incentive to produce a high quality product, why should we expect writing seminars to be anything but a waste of time?

That’s just the beginning, though. In many ways, Penn has institutionalized a lack of care for the very classes they require us to take. Another example of this neglect rests in the hiring practices for writing seminar professors. Each of them is required to have terminal qualifications in the subject of their class’s research text, not in the discipline of writing. As well, these professors are offered short, one-year contracts and are not eligible for tenure consideration. In practice, Penn allots professors to the critical writing program when they are not being considered to teach in their departments of expertise. As is, the system does not seem to acknowledge the value that writing classes could bring to an educational experience. Yet, Penn has recognized the usefulness of writing skills through its institution-wide mandate of them.

I love to write, but many parts of this course left me unfulfilled. Reflecting on the experience as a whole, the course introduced me to new forms of writing, but I am unsure if it truly enhanced what I am capable of. Thinking back to other composition-related classes that I’ve taken, my Penn writing seminar is not the one that I feel was most formative. In fact, our Critical Writing Program might be outpaced by one of America’s most popular high school courses.

So, how do we fix our writing requirement? While not everything at Penn needs to be excessively rigorous, a system that actively rewards a lack of effort among students and professors will never be effective. Therefore, I would contend that even the smallest of writing seminar assignments must be graded for quality, not just completion. As well, I would like to see Penn’s Critical Writing Program put forth a stronger effort to hire faculty for their writing acumen, rather than assigning seminar classes.

As the only requirement applicable to all of our university’s undergraduate schools, it’s clear that Penn has identified writing as an essential skill for its students. With an education system already struggling to effectively teach writing, colleges have a responsibility to ensure their students can confidently produce written content for any professional situation. As it stands, Penn is falling short of that benchmark.

I call on our university to reform the instructional methods of writing seminars. The courses we take should be more than formalities of getting a degree. Writing seminars should be the engaging, memorable, and formative educational experience that they are advertised to be.

JACK LAKIS is a College first year studying Political Science from Kennesaw, GA. His email is