The faculty shares a responsibility to ensure that all students benefit from close attention to writing. The first requisite of good prose, of course, is that an author have something to say, and it makes little sense to divorce writing from the study of particular subjects. The ability to write cogently typically develops in relation with learning and critical thought about specific objects, concepts, and texts. While it may make good sense to identify particular moments in the collegiate years as meriting special attention, it is a mistake to think that a single course, no matter how carefully taught, will turn novice writers into expert wordsmiths.
These convictions are widely shared among those who have studied how students learn to write well. Several of our peer institutions have developed programs, some quite elaborate, to assess and improve their students’ composition. Faculty members at Amherst, as a matter of course, provide the challenging assignments, criticism, and advice that students need to hone their writing. In addition, the College has established a Writing Center to advise students who seek help with composition. Nevertheless, ample evidence exists to show that the College may be failing some of our students, not only among those who come to Amherst with significant deficiencies in composition but also among that much larger category of students who believe “they write well enough” and who are not pressed to test and improve their performance.
The Working Group on Writing has recently completed thoughtful reports that call attention to these issues and provide sensible suggestions about ways to address them, including the formation of a Committee on Writing, the designation of “writing attentive” courses and their identification in the course catalog, and provision for the teaching of up to ten “writing intensive” courses a year, especially but not exclusively for students who need additional preparation. We urge that resources be allocated to ensure that such courses can be mounted across the curriculum. The Working Group further recommends that all students be required to take at least one “writing attentive” course, although opinions differ as to exactly how this is best accomplished. This new requirement would not curtail the open curriculum, since students will still be able to choose the subject area within which they will address their writing. Rather, the adoption of such a requirement and the allocation of resources to offer more such courses across the curriculum would signal the value that the faculty places on cogent composition. We believe that this requirement can meet the needs of all our students and not stigmatize any.
We believe that the reports of the Working Group on Writing form a sound basis for planning over the coming decade, bearing in mind that much remains to be learned about the relationship between specific measures and outcomes.
17. We recommend that 2 new FTEs be reserved to support the development and teaching of “intensive writing” courses, their distribution to be made by the CEP among departments willing to commit themselves to teaching additional courses for this purpose.
18. We recommend that all students be required to take at least one course designated as Writing Attentive, with pedagogical support to be provided for faculty engaged in such writing instruction.
The CAP also welcomes the ongoing deliberations of the CEP and the First-Year Seminar Committee on how those seminars could be enhanced, and we look forward to their future recommendations, mindful that those may also have implications for additional resource needs and faculty appointments.