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UWS: a gateway toward poor writing habits

Published: March 14, 2014
Section: Opinions


I took two years of AP English in high school. At another college, I might have been able to test out of a course on the fundamentals of writing. That wasn’t the case at Brandeis. Here we have the hallowed University Writing Seminar (UWS), required of all undergraduates, a crash course in composition taught by graduate students or Ph.D. candidates. “The purpose of UWS is to teach you how to write,” said someone somewhere along the line, and that’s frightening.

College students should know how to write. We all had to do it in the process of applying, but I understand that it’s designed to teach us to write in an academic, university setting, and that’s all well and good. The program is supposed to bring us up to speed on what professors expect.

So why not have it be taught by actual professors? In terms of logistics, I can recognize that the way it currently is makes sense. It costs the school less money and time and effort to assign people who are working on completing their own educations the responsibility of teaching undergraduate students to coherently express their ideas on paper. Ultimately, however, it shortchanges all involved. Students don’t benefit from taking the class as much as they would if it were taught by a professor, and graduate students and doctoral candidates would be better off assisting rather than directing such a course. How to deliver work that meets a minimum academic standard, more or less the point of UWS, was in fact something I learned to do in my other subjects that were not writing intensive.

Despite my complaints, or perhaps because I learned to work around them, I did reasonably well. Most of the feedback I received from my instructor was to simplify, to pare down and mince my words so that they could be swallowed whole. Point of pride, perhaps, but I felt like doing so was dumbing down my ideas, an insult to my reader’s intelligence. I came to the table assuming my audience knew something about the subject, and I very much did not want to walk them through it by handholding.

Academic writing can often stand to be clearer, but layman’s terms aren’t always ideal for delving into a subject. The feedback my peers gave me was always noncommittal, and the emphasis on peer review detracted from the point of the course, learning how to write for professors in an academic setting. “This is good!” did not constructive criticism make, and the same went for “Don’t like this.” What my classmates suggested was often in direct contrast to what my instructor wanted, and time spent on peer reviews could have been time better spent elsewhere.

I was often late to the class because I was frantically trying to write draft 1.3 or finish the second paper’s post-writing outline. The emphasis on steps was designed to work against students’ tendency to procrastinate, but it is not true to my own and many other people’s writing process. It’s difficult for me to get started, but once I catch wind it’s more or less smooth sailing. I’m not alone in being a spontaneous writer who edits after the foundation has been laid, rather than building from the ground up. Outlining a paper can be helpful; it should not be mandatory. I did it for this class, but I’m unlikely to do it again in my academic career.

The student samples from previous years collected in the “Write Now!” book first-years were required to buy didn’t strike me as being uniformly well-written. It can’t be accounted for entirely, but the quality of writing wasn’t the only factor in the grade. The instructors, understandably, have their biases, so we learn to write for them.

“This isn’t high school,” I told myself so often that the thought started to make me cringe. Still, UWS wasn’t my only class, and I couldn’t devote nearly enough time and energy to my work in it as I would have liked. Because it was on top of everything else, UWS tore the rug out from underneath me.

But just because I am done with UWS doesn’t mean that it won’t remain as the status quo—why would it? For the sake of students and faculty, however, a change in the structure of the program would be for the better.

The different subjects offered for UWS provided options at first glance, but it all boiled down to a class that failed to prepare students to write for professors at a university level. The time and energy I devoted to my work for UWS could have gone toward a class that contributed to my major requirement or was simply something I took to broaden my horizons. Instead, I jumped through the hoops expected of me but learned little about the obstacle course.