January 17, 2006

Writing @ Dartmouth

In Monday's issue of The Dartmouth, Joe Asch writes in to more or less sum up the state of undergraduate writing at Dartmouth. It's in dire straits, in case you haven't noticed. Mr. Asch asks that Dartmouth support the Departmental Editing Program (DEP) due to the enormous need for such a program and the demonstrable good it has done.

There is a bit of an exchange occurring currently between RWiT and the DEP which I really won't stick my nose into other than to say that I don't find students helping edit other students' papers a weird idea. Editing improves not only the writing of the "tutee" but also that of the tutor in the same way, I'm sure, that running drill helps students hone their language skills or at least keep them sharp. A student helping a student means that two students are helped. That's a good ratio.

Asch's point about the quality of writing is undeniable. Dartmouth must support the expansion of some writing program, be it on the model of RWiT or the model of DEP or something in between. Here are some suggestions of my own, however, of changes that should or could take place in the classroom. Actually, these are not my own; they are what I observed from Paul Christesen, the Classics prof and the best writing instructor I have ever had.
  • Directed criticisms. No "I found your thesis to be murky." I find such a criticism murky. Maybe this is just my experience, but a teacher will rarely be both harsh and insightful at once in their evaluation of an essay. That is not helpful.

  • Demand eloquence in classroom discussion. I am in total agreement with the Review here—speaking well is foundational to expressing oneself well in other ways, including in writing. This has long been the foundation of the British public school system, and look at what they've churned out over the years.

  • It seems like a cheap high school trick, but demand an outline accompanying the paper. It really keeps the kids honest. Clever students can, of course, do this ex post facto, but students being clever does not seem to be the problem here.

  • Textbooks are not examples of good writing. Demand outside reading of articles from the field and on the topic at hand. Require, somehow, the students to demonstrate knowledge of their contents.

  • Concision. Assign shorter papers more often. Nothing is harder to fake than a concise summary of a large range of sources, thoughts, and arguments, and nothing is more challenging to pull off than a 4 page paper outlining, say, the three most significant facets of Ancient Greek civilization (a real paper topic).

Well, those are just a few. If you have any suggestions, please leave a comment.

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