Pacing the Cage

By Clara Campoli, guest writer

As an English major who perpetually faces the question, “What are you going to do with that degree?” I find that I often have to employ the phrase “liberal arts experience” in my defense. No, I may not have job-specific training, but my comprehensive education is supposed to give me a fundamental set of skills— including the ability to write effectively—that will take me anywhere I want to go. The Block Plan, however, provides its own unusual set of challenges for those of us who need to develop our writing: how does one make long-term improvements in less than a month? Recently, Colorado College faculty and staff, led by the Curriculum Committee, took notice of this problem and decided to take action.

In the fall of 2010, CC will implement a Writing Proficiency Requirement that aims to evaluate and monitor the quality of writing among incoming first-year classes. All students will be required to turn in a portfolio of their writing at the end of their freshman year that will be evaluated by a self-selecting group of faculty across the curriculum. The portfolio, comprised of an analytical essay from the FYE, an additional essay from another course during the first year, and an essay that reflects on the student’s personal experience with his or her writing, will be labeled either “excellent,” “competent,” or “needs work.” 

Students will be informed of their mark, and those who receive a “needs work” will be required to complete the writing requirement through further coursework. They will have two options: to complete a Writing Intensive (WI) course, several of which are currently offered each year, or to complete a Writing (W) course (in which writing will frequently be assigned), paired with a semester-long adjunct on writing (a WE course) taught by professional members of the Writing Center staff. 

The new writing requirement follows the models of schools like Carleton College and Spelman College, where students in either their first or second year are required to prove writing competency. Tracy Santa, Director of the Writing Center, notes that while CC is a highly competitive school, among faculty members, “there is a sense that people who are weaker writers coming in, are also leaving as weaker writers . . . We were graduating people who were not strong [writers]. And faculty feel especially at a loss when they work with these students as seniors.” 

Until recently, CC has operated on the belief that students who are accepted here are already competent writers. The implementation of the writing portfolio requirement suggests that this illusion has been dispelled, and the faculty is searching for change. While their efforts are a step in the right direction, implementing the new policy is no small task.

Evaluation of the writing portfolio requires a group of faculty to review the several hundred writing samples submitted at the end of each year—a service the college must subsidize. In addition to the funding that this assessment requires, it puts an added burden on faculty who are already juggling teaching and administrative duties. Once the portfolios are assessed, Santa and others estimate that only 10 percent of students will be deemed writers who “need work” and required to complete extra coursework. 

Faculty will evaluate the portfolios for “quality of thought,” “rhetorical sophistication,” and “mechanics,” but there will inevitably be a line between passing and failing and students who skirt that line. For those teetering on the edge who ultimately fall on the passing side, there will be no further requirement to improve their writing skills. Though the writing portfolio would give students a chance to receive a more comprehensive evaluation of their work, it would only demand improvement from a small percentage of students. Nevertheless, it seems that more than ten percent of us could benefit from further writing instruction. While the new Proficiency Requirement may increase the number of competent writers, it offers little incentive for students to move from competence to excellence. 

FYE courses, which “focus on vital skills,” seem like the obvious venue for the development of good writing; FYE courses are described in the Catalog of Courses as providing “opportunities for students to enhance their research and writing skills.” But, as Santa notes, “there’s nothing in the [FYE] language . . . that says you have to teach writing. There’s a distinction between writing instruction and assignment.” The adjunct component of the new writing requirement will fill the gap between assignment and instruction by offering writing instruction to students who do not pass the portfolio requirements and cannot get into a WI course. But this means that many students may not receive substantial writing instruction until after their freshman year. 

I know that I’m not the only one who chose to come to CC because I believed in the value of a liberal arts education. But what exactly does that education promise? Is learning to write a fundamental part of our “unique intellectual adventure?” Should it be? Hopefully, the new writing portfolio will improve the overall writing skills of future generations of CC students. For those of us whose chance for such instruction has passed, we may just have to keep touting our “liberal arts education” and leave it at that.

Pacing the Cage

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