McKay: Flawed Foundations

On the first day of my Writing 5 class, my professor asked, "Why does the college require that you take Writing 5?" The question seemed so obvious that one student replied, "To learn how to write better?" My professor pressed us further. Why else? Eventually, we decided that students come to Dartmouth from a variety of educational backgrounds and that Writing 5 is Dartmouth's attempt to ensure all students receive the same writing instruction. In fact, the '16s are the first class that cannot test out of the writing requirement, so everyone receives the same equal treatment.


However, the writing program fails to equalize the playing field because each professor prefers drastically different stylistic and structural approaches. Asking my friends for advice on a Writing 5 paper yields absolutely no productive result, because their professors require such different types of papers. One requires lengthy introductions that place the paper in a worldly context, while mine urges concise introductions that, if possible, may be pared down to simply a strong thesis statement. One friend's professor places emphasis on the thesis statement itself, yet another's prioritizes the lines of evidence that prove the thesis. These countless contrasts fail to create an equalizing experience for all first-years.


Of course, I understand that if all students are going to take Writing 5, variety is necessary. After all, not every student wants nor has the skill set to be an English major. However, the variety should come in the form of subject matter, not expectations. A disconnect in the standard of writing is not a necessary consequence of such variety. If all Writing 5 professors advocate contradictory expository writing strategies, they defeat the purpose of the program because first-years will have no more common ground than they did beforehand.


Additionally, the program fails to account for the fact that professors' preferences strongly influence the course. Professors adhere to their idea of a "well-written" essay rather strictly, preventing students from exploring writing within their individual style. This approach limits opportunities for creative, alternative approaches, because the professor already has an idea of what they want. Since students' main goal in a course is usually to get a good grade, they will simply cater to the professor's standards. For some, learning to write to please a professor may improve their skills, but for others the course may simply be an exercise in manipulation.


Realistically, different professors will expect different approaches to expository writing. Last term, I took an English class that required three major papers, a government class that required three and an art history class that required one. The seven college papers I wrote before Writing 5 varied based on both the assignment and the teacher's expectations. These papers differ immensely from the type of paper I must craft for my current writing professor. No specific rhetorical elements determined my papers' successes or failures as much as my ability to gauge what each professor preferred. There is no single correct approach to writing, yet each Writing 5 professor seems to analyze papers according to his or her own rubric.


Finally, since the course is now a requirement for all freshmen, students are thrust together from different backgrounds and the course does not fully account for the spectrum of writing experience the students have. More experienced students complain that it simply repeats lessons from high school English classes. To students who have a strong background in literature and expository writing, the course feels like just another distributive requirement, another hoop to jump through in order to earn a diploma.


If the College is going to make the course a strict requirement, it would behoove them to reassess the way the course is taught. Writing 5 may fail to equalize the playing field, but it is still the foundation of writing instruction at Dartmouth for all first-years. The students who need the writing instruction the most will benefit, but they will not necessarily have a complete foundation for college-level expository writing. The more advanced students will benefit from careful scrutiny of their work, but they will not necessarily be any better prepared for college writing. An introductory writing course for all freshmen is a good idea in theory, but the current Writing 5 system misses the mark.


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