Slippery Rock University recently removed the liberal arts requirement that required all students to take two college writing courses, causing debate about how writing competency should be demonstrated.
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at SRU Dr. William F. Williams explained that the two different college writing classes that all students were required to take were College Writing I and College Writing II. College Writing I focused on general composition skills, while College Writing II focused on research writing. The new college writing class tries to mix what was taught in College Writing I with some of the research methods that were taught in College Writing II.
Instead, there is now a requirement that each individual program must demonstrate that they teach students writing skills in a discipline specific course. The idea is that professors who work in the sciences know what kind of writing is used in the sciences and business professors know what kind of writing is appropriate for business. So with that being said, it is the science professors who should teach science students what kind of writing styles and forms they will need for their specific occupations.
Geology professor Dr. Michael Zieg explained that the University Advisement Committee is currently helping the faculty of each program become aware of what the changes are. The committee is also helping each department develop a plan to reach the new goals, and they are also evaluating the plans of every program in order to ensure that each is reasonable.
“I think that the problem is that some programs are concerned that they are not qualified to teach writing mechanics, and that this is requiring them in class to teach writing mechanics,” Zieg explained. “But that is not what this is requiring; this is not a requirement that the geology department or any other department teach sentence structure or grammar. It is applying writing in a particular format that is appropriate for a particular field.”
English professor Dr. Neil Cosgrove stated that each program has a few choices in order to meet these new writing standards. In order to this they can add writing assignments into existing courses, create a new course, or if they believe that they already meet the requirements, they can prove it in the assessment process.
“Some departments would still like to come to the English department and have English faculty help them out with meeting these guidelines by either working in one of existing courses, such as Technical and Scientific writing, or by creating a new course that would be geared towards their majors but taught by the English professors,” Cosgrove explained.
Cosgrove said that the English department is willing to help develop specialized classes if each department’s faculties meet with the English professors. The English department is also asking for more staff in order to teach the additional courses. He also stated that the English department refuses to combine the liberal arts College Writing class with this specialized program specific English class.
“If we agree to do something such as create an entire section for nothing but chemistry or physics majors, then what we’re saying is that we want to work with them to set up what gets covered in that course,” Cosgrove said. “Secondly, that we want enough staff to do it. They don’t need to rely on us, it’s just that some departments think that we can help them out.”
Cosgrove stated that one of the problems with the previous research writing class, College Writing II, was that it was impossible for English professors to anticipate specifically what kind of writing will be required for each individual discipline.
“The old idea that the English department could solve everybody’s problems in terms of students learning how to write was never particularly valid,” Cosgrove explained. “It was just something that we kind of did in this country. There’s a whole tradition behind that.”
Cosgrove explained how he believes that many students do not come to college with the writing skills necessary to succeed in college.
“The problem is we don’t know what students are learning in high school, Cosgrove said. “An awful lot of students when they get into college writing say that they hardly did any writing in high school. Some of them who did, may have done a very special kind of writing and often time that writing is focused on the writing component on the PSSAs. A lot of students also focus on how to learn five-paragraph essays. There’s a lot more to writing than that one formula. Form should follow function, not the other way around.”
On the contrary, Williams believes that students who are accepted into the university are adequately prepared for the kind of writing that SRU requires.
“Students start writing in second grade, and spend the rest of their time through school writing,” Williams said. “When we admit people into college, one of the criteria of admissions is the SAT score which measures the skills of students coming out of high school. So the student comes to college already having demonstrated through a testing system and 12 years of experience, that they’ve reached a certain level of competence of writing.”
Cosgrove believes that the shift from two liberal arts writing classes, to a more discipline specific writing requirement was inevitable. He stated that SRU was one of the only universities that had a English department base research writing class. With that being said, he doesn’t necessarily believe that it’s a bad thing because it allows students to gain specialized skills that are necessary to each individual major.
“Do you really know a field if you don’t know how to write the way that they write?” Cosgrove asked. “Do you really know a field if you can’t put what you think you know in writing either?”