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Princeton’s writing seminars need a makeover

My freshman year was generally a breeze — making new friends, experiencing Princeton — but for a single blight. The culprit? My writing seminar. To say I did not enjoy my seminar was a gross understatement — I contemplated shifting it to my sophomore year.

Yeah, it was that bad.

While my case is (hopefully) an outlier, I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve met who classify their writing seminars as fun. For the vast majority of sophomores and upperclassmen, writing sems were like filing taxes, the undesirable ritual one had to endure as part of the package that is Princeton University.

However, the Writing Program was created, I imagine, with the more pleasant analogy of learning to ride a bike in mind. According to its official website, it is supposed to “help students build a critical research and writing toolkit for their later work at Princeton, including junior independent work and the senior thesis.” This, of course, is a laudable goal. The jump from a five-paragraph high school essay, consisting of an introduction, three-pointer body, and concluding paragraph, to a thesis anywhere from 50 to a 100 pages, or beyond, is Herculean. Besides, we all take delight in beautiful work, and who hasn’t read a lucid essay, or easy-to-follow yet sophisticated prose, and wished they could write as well? Writing sem had one job: to, at least, set us on that path. Yet, as a friend once quipped, “No one actually writes that way.”

So where did it all go wrong?

It all begins with the very methodology adopted by the program. I recall, during my first lesson, my professor telling us that the five-paragraph model would simply not cut it in college, after which he gave a vague wishy-washy description of the ideal essay, which sounded honestly intimidating. That was the only reference throughout the class to a method I had known my entire life. That was the method that got me the grades necessary for Princeton admission. It had been so ingrained in me, it was my first resort whenever it came to writing.

The treatment of freshmen like tabula rasa (thanks, Locke!) when it comes to writing is one of the biggest flaws of the writing program. It has been well established that efficient teaching builds on the known, then draws the student into the unknown. Yet, there is no segue here, no unlearning. Would it not have been better if students first wrote in the manner that they had been taught, then professors tried to mold that into what ought to be?

Speaking of what ought to be, one of the strongest criticisms of the writing program is the lack of exposure to what constitutes “good” writing. Of course, we spend a class or two parsing a sample paper, seeing how someone made a good argument, or problematized a situation adequately, but is that enough? As Bernard Shaw, a good writer himself, points out, “Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery — it’s the sincerest form of learning.” Source materials should themselves be emulated; not just worthy of emulation, but structured such that reading them illustrates to students easy-to-pick-up ways of writing well. If I am what I read, can I blame my bad writing on the bad examples of those I read?

Tied to this learning issue is the matter of what we learn in the seminar. As emphasized in its name, writing sems teach us to write. This, however, cannot occur in a vacuum, hence the myriad of over 50 different topics with catchy names, from “The Big Apple” (about New York City) to “Sex on the Brain” (it’s purely anthropological, disappointingly). Let’s set aside, for a moment, the fact that the options are heavily skewed towards the social sciences and humanities (as if physicists do not write papers), and focus on the content of these seminars. While it is desirable to learn something new in these seminars, there must be a balance between trying to develop an important skill (writing), and learning a new subject, even if it’s the interesting one of anthropological basis for sex and the brain.

Take, for example, a (hypothetical?) student in “Property, Wealth and Equality,” who has no background in either Locke’s philosophy or economic arguments. In addition to learning to write, they have to grasp all of the material and sources necessary for that essay. Yes, it depends on the depth the professor decides to take the class. Nonetheless, quality papers require a thorough understanding of the topic. This is why, for instance, we spent more time in my class discussing Neanderthals than we spent on the rubrics of writing; no one in the class had a background in evolutionary anthropology.

The solution is simple. Writing seminars should be on topics already familiar to students, preferably at the high school level, or should be less intense and interdisciplinary. “Villains and Villainy” and “The Uses of Photography” are good examples of such classes, in which the subject matter is obviously a conduit for learning to write. In these classes, students can quickly and easily grasp the crux of the source material, allowing more time and effort to be spent on actually polishing their writing. They can even compare it to their high school work, noticing the difference and how far they have come.

The recent task force on General Education noted that “Given the University’s high expectations for students in their independent work, we should consider more carefully the ability of the current first-year writing seminar model, by itself, to adequately prepare students for writing in their concentrations.” I would go further to question whether it prepares students for writing well at all. With such a flawed program packed into the 12-week whirlwind that is a Princeton semester, I would not be surprised if the answer is no.

Blaykyi Kenyah is a sophomore from Sekondi, Ghana. He can be reached at bkenyah@princeton.edu.

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