By Jessica Spitz | Spectator Senior Staff Writer | October 6, 2016, 5:16 AM
Every year, 1,500 Columbia College and School of Engineering and Applied Science first-years take University Writing, a Core Curriculum course that has existed in its current iteration for 13 years.
The first-year writing course, which is required for all CC and SEAS students, is meant to prepare students to engage intellectually with each other and the materials they study, and then enable them to present their ideas clearly through essays.
Although many students interviewed by Spectator reported positive experiences in University Writing, the course is also the subject of a series of criticisms, including that the current iteration of the course does not achieve its intended goals and that requiring students to take a class solely devoted to teaching writing structure and mechanics is unnecessary.
University Writing adds to the number of courses students are required to take, limiting students’ freedom in choosing classes. In addition, it necessitates the participation of enough graduate and postdoctoral students to staff over 50 course sections per semester, drawing on the University’s limited faculty resources. The significant investment needed from both faculty and students to sustain the program has lead some to question whether the course meets a sufficient standard of quality and effectiveness.
“Columbia has quite a heavy Core, and it’s quite extensive, and because of that, I think it’s incumbent on us to always continue to look at it and to make sure that all parts of it really rise to the bar of being so essential that they’re more important than giving students more flexibility in their schedules,” history professor and Contemporary Civilization instructor Susan Pedersen said.
University Writing has not been significantly altered since themed classes were introduced in 2010, but interviewsincluding with faculty at peer institutions that offer different versions of first-year writing programspoint to potential changes that could improve the course for a majority of students, including the possibility of a supplemental rather than separate course and an increased availability of themed classes.
The University Writing curriculum is centered around four essays referred to as “progressions.” The first emphasizes close reading, the second prompts students to put authors in conversation with one another, the third is a research paper, and the fourth is an opinion piece. During each progression, students read several essays per week as examples and as source material for their own writing.
The course also heavily emphasizes revision and requires students to submit several drafts before completing a final draft, meet with their instructors at least once per progression, and participate in several peer review exercises.
Director of the Undergraduate Writing Program Nicole Wallack said that this structure helps students improve their essay writing skills through peer interaction and guidance from instructors.
“The function of University Writing is to invite first-year students at Columbia into becoming public intellectuals through the genre of the essay,” she said. “The reason it’s part of the Core is because that is something that is not just about learning basic skills. There are no basic skills in being a public thinker and writer.”
However, some students and faculty interviewed questioned why the course exists separately from other required, writing-heavy courses, including Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization. They argue that students can improve their writing through these courses alone and that it is more beneficial to learn specific essay structures this way, as they are more easily transferable to other courses at Columbia.
Wallack refuted that idea and said that studying different types of essay composition is necessary in itself and should constitute a course separate from Lit Hum and Contemporary Civilization because the other Core courses focus on the content of the works rather than on the writing techniques used.
“Those are not essay courses,” Wallack said. “They’;re courses in which you write papers. Some people may call those papers essays, but it is not a dedicated study of people working in the genre and learning some of the varieties of what that genre affords us.”
Annie Im, CC ’20, emphasized that University Writing helped her learn how to construct an argument, rather than just writing mechanics.
“It’s about knowing how to develop your ideas and knowing what exactly a good paper should have, and I think that after you know all those things, you begin to emulate that and apply that knowledge to your own writing,” Im said.
However, many maintain that these types of skills can be learned through other courses just as effectively, and that the themes and ideas that students are exposed to through reading classical texts in the Core facilitate this type of learning.
“I don’t think beautiful style and ‘good’ writing can really be taught abstractly, but over time, it follows from the pedagogy of the class discussions, readings, and writing assignments in classic texts that define the CC and Lit Hum experience,” Contemporary Civilization Core Lecturer Francis Hittinger said.
Pedersen echoed Hittinger’s view, noting that there are different kinds of ways “one can encourage good writing.”
Shanzay Khan, CC ’19, said that she felt the University Writing essay prompts were too narrow, and that learning different writing styles would have been made easier through departmental courses.
“There’s not one writing style that you really develop,” Khan said. “The way you would write if you’re an English major versus a history major, political scienceit’s all really different, so I feel that you’;re better off learning how to write depending on the styles in classes that you take as opposed to learning one style.”
Eddie Baker, CC ’20, agreed that the types of essays he is writing in his Data Sciences-themed University Writing section are not applicable to other courses.
“I feel like they teach a very contrived form of essay writing that I’;m probably never going to use again,” Baker said. “You have to write about a paradox in the text and reconcile that paradox through your essay, but that’;s such a specific and rigid form of essay writing, and I feel like I’;m never going to use that in the future.”
Data Sciences is one of five themed University Writing courses, along with Human Rights, Gender and Sexuality, Sustainable Development, and American Studies. For each theme, there are an average of four sections offered per semester, and the rest of the sections focus on contemporary essays.
Many students cited the theme of the section, or lack thereof, as having a significant impact on their overall experience, in terms of both their enjoyment of the course and how applicable the skills they learned are to other academic areas. Themed classes were incorporated into the University Writing curriculum in order to make the course more interdisciplinary and engaging for students.
Students often find the more general Contemporary Essays sections, which constitute a majority of the sections offered, to be significantly less engaging than the themed sections.
“Just add a few more specific sections, just so people would be more passionate,” Dylon Browning, CC ’19, said. “All the people that I know in my class were like ‘Oh, why am I here?’ The only time they were really happy was when they could do their research paper on a subject that they themselves were passionate about.”
However, incoming first-year students are assigned to a University Writing section in either their first or second semester, and if they are assigned first semester, they do not have a choice in whether or not they are placed in a themed class.
For those studentshalf of the first-year classtheir placement is completely up to chance, often leading to a less meaningful University Writing experience.
“I’;m an art history majorI don’;t know why I was placed in Data Sciences. It’;s horrible,” Baker said. “I don’;t really know what the nuances are there I just didn’;t really know what to expect going into it, and I still don’;t really know how data sciences is going to come into play in the texts we read.”
Wallack said that she has pushed for allowing students placed in University Writing first semester to choose their sections but has run into logistical issues. However, she and other instructors also find value in exposing students to concepts that they may not otherwise have considered, she said.
Although one of the course’s goals is to provide writing tools for students to apply in their other courses, many denied that it has a significant impact on their ability to succeed academically at Columbia, saying that the structures taught in University Writing are too specific.
“I just feel like I’;m not really learning anything useful about the writing process, and I feel like the format that they want me to write in UW is not going to be something that’;s going to help me grow as a writer, or a form that’;s going to be used in the future,” Baker said.
However, some students, including Kristy Tougas, CC ’17, said that the course helped them learn how to write an essay beyond the standard five-paragraph structure they learned in high school.
“Perhaps the most important thing I learned was that even as a college freshman, I could, and was supposed to, find a ‘problem’ with the texts I was reading and use that to fuel my arguments,” Tougas said. “I’ve found myself applying that in a lot of my classes since then.”
Columbia College Dean James Valentini said that, ideally, University Writing would give students “the ability to communicate effectively their writing, which also means to effectively organize your thinking, to apply logic and reason and evidence,” he said, but could not say either way whether the course achieves those goals.
Although most students and faculty agree that writing instruction is necessary in some form for first-years, many feel that taking a course solely dedicated to it is unnecessarily time-consuming.
In comparing Columbia’s first-year writing program to that of peer institutions, at the University of Chicago, which has a Core similar to Columbia’s, students take a supplemental weekly seminar along with their Humanities sequencesthe equivalent of Lit Hum which focuses on how to improve the essays that they write for those humanities courses.
“The reason we do not do writing instruction separately is that we feel that writing is a tool for analytical and critical thought and cannot be divorced from the contents of thought,” UChicago Deputy Dean and Master of the Humanities Collegiate Division Christopher Wild said.
When asked if this model would be an improvement to the current program at Columbia, Isabel McGrory-Klyza, CC ’17 and a former copy staff member for Spectator, said that it might better to integrate the writing program with other courses she has taken at the University.
“I think that could work really well, actually,” McGrory-Klyza said. “What I was researching for my UWriting research paper had nothing to do with anyone else in the class or with anything else I ever took.”
Wallack said that she and the other University Writing instructors are constantly reviewing the course and are open to changes, as evidenced by the introduction of themed sections in 2010. She also said that she is open to looking into ways to better integrate University Writing into the Core.
“If we wanted to have a wholesale revision of our entire Core Curriculum to make for an essay-centric curriculum, because it would afford students and faculty opportunitiesin fact, the requirementto become more rhetorically self-conscious and self-aware, sure, let’s do that,” Wallack said.
Yeewen New contributed reporting.