Faculty committee proposes changes to writing requirement

Macalester’s general education requirements on writing proficiency could be overhauled as soon as next fall, pending approval of a faculty committee’s recommendations.

The proposed recommendations, developed by the Faculty Learning Committee on Writing Pedagogy, call for replacing the current two-course writing requirement with a three-course requirement that provides focus in three separate areas: argumentative writing, instruction in writing as craft, and informal writing. Currently, graduation requirements only require one writing-intensive course in addition to the first-year course, which is supposed to provide instruction in writing as well.

The process for recommending these changes began three years ago, when the college instituted a campus-wide assessment of the writing requirement and its effects on students’ writing. According to Adrienne Christiansen, Political Science Professor and Director of the Center for Scholarship and Teaching, the results of this assessment were troubling. They revealed no visible difference in writing quality between students that had completed their writing requirement and those that hadn’t.

“The principle behind the writing requirement is that a student’s writing gets better, and there’s some improvement in the quality of the writing,” Christiansen said. “That wasn’t happening, and that’s troubling.”

In response to that report, minor changes to the writing requirement were made, which called for altering the size of writing classes and the amount of time they would spend dedicated to writing instruction. Under Christiansen, the CST implemented programs — such as the “Write Well” microlecture series, the Supplemental Writers Workshop and faculty workshops on how to teach writing to their students.

In addition, then-Provost Kathy Murray gathered 10 faculty members and established the Faculty Learning Community on Writing Pedagogy, imploring them to make recommendations to improve the writing program.

The report, which was presented to Murray last spring, called for short-term changes to the writing requirement at Macalester that would increase the number of required courses and the range of courses that this requirement would cover.

Instead of having courses designated “W,” marking a special focus on writing, courses would now be categorized as “wA,” “wC,” or “wP” — separating courses’ focuses in argumentative, craft and informal writing. Three courses would be required for graduation, and many first-year courses would fulfill a wA requirement.

According to Acting Provost Kendrick Brown, a substantial number of courses already meet those requirements. In addition, these expanded requirements would be more inclusive to disciplines that teach writing but didn’t previously fulfill the writing requirement, such as courses in the natural sciences.

“The recommendations are focused on clarifying the kinds of writing that happen in classes,” said Christiansen, who helped formulate these recommendations.

The proposal also calls for strengthening the focus on writing that is provided in first-year courses. According to Director of Academic Programs Ann Minnick, the level of writing instruction provided in those courses is often very thin and inconsistent compared to other courses.

“There’s a minimum set of requirements. There are some lofty goals for the first-year course about helping students to adjust to writing at the college level, and information fluency, and introducing the idea of the liberal arts,” Minnick said.

The minimum requirements for teaching writing in first-year courses, according to Minnick, involve assisting students in the revision of one paper.
However, some courses provide barely any instruction in writing beyond that minimum.

“If you only do the minimum expectations for writing in the first-year course, you’re not going to see much writing growth in terms of the students,” Minnick said.

Chair of MCSG’s Academic Affairs Committee (AAC) Merita Bushi ’14 said the AAC wanted to look at how writing was addressed in first-year courses and aim for more consistency across all courses.

“I’m really heartened that the Faculty Learning Committee looked at FYCs so explicitly,” Bushi said.

Under these proposed requirements, a professor teaching a first-year course can opt out of having their course designated as filling a writing requirement. If they do that, they will have to instruct their advisees to take another argumentative writing (wA) or instructional writing (wC) course their first semester.

If these changes were approved, they would not apply to current students and would likely be implemented for the next incoming class.

The changes to the writing requirement and first-year courses are designed to lay the foundation for more substantial overhauls to the writing program, including implementing a Director of Writing position and potentially switching to a portfolio-based writing program.

The Director of Writing would “direct the writing program and all writing-related faculty development initiatives on campus” and work to “establish ways to certify courses to meet the new writing designations,” according to the report’s executive summary. It would very likely be appointed from the inside.

“What we’re proposing, both in terms of curriculum and programmatic elements, you’re going to need someone who can give full attention to that — go to different departments, work with faculty who are interested in developing different kinds of pedagogy for different courses,” Brown said.

The portfolio model, according to Christiansen, would allow Macalester’s focus on writing to switch from an output-based model, focused on solely fulfilling graduation requirements, to an input-based model, where the focus is on student works. According to Christiansen, faculty would identify categories of writing that they believe students must be proficient in, and they would have to submit their best examples of that writing to a portfolio which would be evaluated the summer after their sophomore year.

If it is implemented, the restructured writing requirement categories would be a transition to the creation of the portfolio model.

“Having explicit student learning outcomes is always preferable,” said Minnick, who noted that development of a portfolio model is dependent on the cost and infrastructure necessary to implement it, as well as the creation of the Director of Writing position.

The recommendations created by the Faculty Learning Community are still tentative and subject to change. Christiansen and other members of the cohort have been in conversation with faculty members about proposed changes to the requirements, and some alterations have already been made.

The proposal will now go to EPAG, which will solicit input from faculty members and students before introducing a motion to the entire faculty to approve these changes. Christiansen hopes that the proposal will come before the faculty by their December meeting, but she does not foresee a vote on the issue until January at the earliest.