Mac writing requirement faces committee’s scrutiny

By Amber Bunnell

Macalester’s writing requirement might face some changes in the near future, especially if the General Education Requirements Committee (GERC) has anything to say about it. The committee for Educational Policy and Governance (EPAG) is in the process of evaluating a GERC report, published in fall 2010, which recommends a revision of the writing requirement. If EPAG agrees with GERC, they’ll likely bring a motion to the faculty this spring to streamline the writing requirement. The GERC student-learning assessment implemented in spring of 2010 raised a lot of questions about the effectiveness of the W- classes. Over four intensive days, Mac professors systematically reviewed student papers from W-courses and from students who had not yet fulfilled the requirement. Though the assessment’s cross-sectional data offers only a snapshot into the issue, Dean of the Faculty Kendrick Brown said that the results were eye-opening. “We didn’t find any significant difference between papers that came from W-courses and papers that came from non W-courses,” Brown said. The writing requirement was last revised in 2006, when the faculty voted to increase its structure. As it stands, W-classes must include either one long paper or three shorter papers and place an emphasis on the process of revision. Proposed changes have mostly centered on steering W-classes to a focus on argumentative writing. “It’s the kind of writing that we all do,” said Adrienne Christiansen of the Center for Scholarship and Teaching. “We’d like the writing requirement to reflect that.” Besides the revision of the writing requirement, several other writing initiatives have been recently introduced to improve student writing. “It’s like an octopus,” Christiansen said. “There are arms everywhere, in the faculty, students, curriculum, registrar!” So far, the biggest endeavor has been the Supplemental Writer’s Workshop, an eight-week, 1-credit course run by nine faculty members for approximately 60 first year students looking for intensive instruction in college-writing. Another initiative is the Write Well videos, a series of online micro-lectures by Mac professors. About 25 professors have uploaded their 60-second micro-lecture, and Christiansen hopes that one day every professor will have a video. Other pilot programs include the Teaching Argumentative Writing Workshops and the Faculty Learning Community on Writing Pedagogy, both aimed at developing professors’ ability to teach writing. “We’re trained to be writers, but not to teach writing, and those are very different things,” Christiansen said. She believes that student writing can be improved by developing better faculty instruction. A new emphasis on Writing Assistants in First Year Courses is also aimed at bettering writing instruction. “It’s really about learning outcomes,” Assistant Provost Ann Minnick said. “One of the goals of the FYC is to provide writing instruction.” This semester, 29 out of 33 FYCs have Writing Assistants. Many of these initiatives are in the developmental or pilot stages, and are being designed with an eye to the writing requirement. Macalester plans to review each of the current graduation requirements in the upcoming years. GERC is currently writing a report on quantitative thinking; multiculturalism is slated for examination in 2012; internationalism will be put under review in 2013. All changes will have to undergo the same extensive process of student assessment, GERC report, EPAG review and faculty vote. “I like the process that we’re using because I think it’s systematic and deliberate,” Brown said. “The good thing about taking time is that we can really scrutinize all the information to help the college. That’s the ultimate goal.”