Seminars put writing at the forefront for freshmen
Revamped program introduced this fall
Princeton NJ -- Kerry Walk hit the ground running when she came on board as the director of Princeton's new Writing Program in July.
"We've done this extraordinarily fast," said Walk, who came to Princeton after eight years as a writing program administrator and prize-winning teacher at Harvard University. "We've been able to accomplish so much because of the tremendous support we've received from many people across campus -- those in the dean of the college's office, the registrar's office, facilities, Firestone Library, the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning -- and from our own staff. This is an endeavor that's brought in a lot of people. It's been a true collaboration."
Walk was hired this spring to lead a totally revamped program that was approved by the faculty last December. Freshmen now satisfy the University's writing requirement by enrolling in one-semester topic-based seminars of no more than 12 students. The seminars have replaced the old "w" courses offered by faculty in all divisions of the University and in the Freshman Seminar Program. All told, the Writing Program will offer more than 100 writing seminars this year.
Forty-five faculty members with special training in the teaching of writing are leading the new seminars. Twenty are full-time lecturers hired through a national search expressly to teach in the program. These faculty members, who teach two seminars per semester, include recent Ph.D. recipients from Princeton and other universities as well as faculty members on leave from their institutions. In addition, seven post-enrolled graduate students are teaching one seminar per semester. Offices for the program's faculty are located in Notestein Hall at 21 Prospect Ave., where some of the classes are taught.
Eight regular Princeton faculty members, nine administrators and one librarian also are teaching one seminar this year. "These are people who bring tremendous experience and expertise to the program," Walk said. "With them in the mix, we've begun an important conversation across the University about how to encourage better student writing."
The topics for the seminars run the gamut: "Aspects of Elizabeth I," "Culture and Taboo," "Human Rights and Religious Freedom in China," "Modern Architecture and Scientific Imagination," "Reading the Broadway Musical," "The Secret of Life" (on DNA), "Social Issues and Community Action," "The Utopian Impulse" and "Vietnam in Fact, Film and Fiction."
"I think students are going to like our offerings because these are exciting courses taught by exciting faculty," said Walk in an interview before class registration began. "The University has put a lot of thought into how best to give students the writing skills they need to succeed at Princeton. We believe that students will learn the most if they have the chance to write about topics they care about and are interested in. The writing seminars we're offering this year will give them that chance. There should be something for everyone."
Enrolling via the Web
After meeting with their academic advisers and determining the rest of their class schedules, students logged on to an enrollment Web site from the Writing Program's Web site <writing>. They ranked their top eight writing seminar choices online and, once a software program ran, they received notification of their seminar assignment by e-mail.
Of the nearly 600 students who enrolled this fall (the rest of the freshman class will enroll in the spring), 95.5 percent received one of their top three writing seminar preferences; 75 percent received one of their top two choices.
The seminars meet for 80-minute sessions twice a week. Each seminar is organized around four major essay assignments, totaling about 30 pages of finished writing. All of the in-class activities are directed toward the students producing these essays, which are of increasing complexity. The seminar leaders assign different kinds of essays, reflecting the types of writing commonly required at Princeton.
In preparation for the four major essays, students complete a series of "pre-draft" assignments. They then write a draft, on which seminar leaders comment in writing and in discussions with students during 30- to 45-minute conferences. The students subsequently revise their drafts. In addition, they produce several other assignments, including responses to classmates' drafts, in-class writing exercises and reflections on their own writing.
Each seminar also includes a "Firestone Exploration" -- a special library tour/hands-on workshop -- and a session on library research skills and resources. In addition, most seminars have an oral presentation component.
To prepare program faculty to teach seminars in which the primary focus is on writing rather than course content, Walk conducted a week-long retreat at the end of August.
"We spent a week talking about the shared goals of our seminars," she said, "and we tried to develop a common language for discussing student writing. We're not talking about some mysterious language here -- the major terms are 'thesis,' 'structure,' 'evidence,' and 'analysis' -- but we tried to define our terms carefully and use them to identify the strengths and weaknesses of actual student writing. A common language can be a real unifying force in a program. It's also something students can take from our courses and use in other courses."
Faculty members also spent a considerable amount of time discussing how to comment on student writing.
"Students in our seminars are making the crucial transition from high school to college writing," Walk said. "Even if they're fabulous writers on some level -- and many Princeton students are -- they still need guidance in making their arguments more rigorous, their analysis deeper. Good comments are instrumental in helping freshmen bring their writing up to the next level."
Faculty meetings designed more as workshops will continue throughout the semester, she said, so that those leading the seminars can give and get feedback.
Alfred Guy Jr. is one of the faculty members hired expressly to teach in the Writing Program. He comes to Princeton from New York University, where he taught for 13 years and served as one of the directors of its writing program for nine years.
"A difference in this program from what I'm used to is that all the teachers design a course of their own interest, and students get to choose by the subject of the course," he said. "Most writing programs are much more generic than this one. The one I taught in had 3,000 students and six different kinds of courses you could take, as opposed to here where we have 600 students choosing from 30 to 35. The element of teacher and student individuality is a lot greater."
Guy is teaching the course on "The Utopian Impulse" this fall, exploring textual and real-world examples of the enduring dream of human perfection.
"Given the attack on the World Trade Center, it was kind of odd to teach a class on utopian civilization," he said. "So that was what we wrote about on the first day. I asked the students to write something that they remembered or experienced during the events: an image from TV or something that they saw. Then I asked them to write what implications, if any, this event had had on their ideas about trying to build a utopia.
"The in-class writing was incredible," he said. "I was very impressed with the wide range of the students' responses. They were all across the political spectrum and from incredibly personal to very philosophical."
Oliver Arnold has been a faculty member in Princeton's English department since 1993. A Shakespeare scholar, he is leading the writing seminar on "Culture and Taboo" this fall. He is covering how taboos on incest, miscegenation and even bad table manners have been explained by anthropologists, scientists, sociologists, psychoanalytic theorists, historians and literary artists.
"I think that (the revamped program) is just a huge improvement," said Arnold, who taught many of the old "w" courses. "Anybody working with the Writing Program now really feels the mission very powerfully. The whole program is structured in a way that ensures that the instruction of writing and written argumentation remains at the forefront."
He has taught a version of this class as a Freshman Seminar, but not to fulfill the previous writing requirement. "It's been interesting to reconceive my old course for the writing program -- fewer works read and more writing assignments," he said. "I'm enjoying teaching some of the material again, but in this new context. "
Arnold hopes more full-time faculty members take advantage of the opportunity to teach a writing seminar.
"Both sides win: The writing program will be even stronger if there's good and diverse participation by the faculty," he said. "Faculty members will find, no matter how long they've been teaching, that teaching a course like this will re-energize them in certain ways and change the way they think about certain aspects of the way they teach."