August 31, 2010

Beyond Quote Sandwiches

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Regardless of school or major, we all have one unifying academic requirement to contend with: the freshman writing seminar. Born from noble intentions surely: Undoubtedly we all should develop and maintain the ability to write competently — even eloquently — as educated adults. However, as becomes the case with much in our disappointingly imperfect world, the freshman writing seminar sounds much better in theory than in practice. This dissatisfaction stems not only from my personal stubbornness or distaste of any requirement, but also from a fundamental contention with the values a FWS instills. I understand, we should try to avoid using the passive voice, use topic sentences and adhere to a general sense of linear logic. But in the two writing seminars I took last year (in most regards completely dissimilar) essays were taught as formulaic. The ultimate lesson: To write a good essay you need only take the basic form and fill in the varying names of the text and characters; your prose will be good if you avoid that nuisance of a verb “to be;” each body paragraph (of which there should be three) should begin with a declarative statement of the primary point of said paragraph; finally, you assume the reader knows nothing. Granted, I don’t claim these rules are inaccurate — or bad even. Further, as a student in the humanities, I have more emotional investment in these seminars than they probably warrant. But I also have a deep-seated and fundamental problem with the notion that an essay’s content can be considered secondary to formulaic execution. This goes beyond an awareness of grace, clear conveyance of argument and usage of text. Emphasis on rudimentary dreariness gets taken to an absurd extreme. I have been told that in order to deserve an “A,” I need to remember my “quote sandwich” — subtly implying that my (wonderfully complex and unobvious) thesis came second. Essentially, writing seminars boil down to classes where the texts function only to provide paper topics. They provide quotes for quote sandwiches rather than venues for the genesis of intellectual thought and discussion. In a FWS, discussion of how you might turn one line of dialogue into an essay occurs more frequently than discussion of the significance of the line itself. The papers feel meaningless. I do not mean to argue that form does not influence function; what you mean can only express itself through language. However, the emphases of freshman writing seminars ultimately land on creating rigid rules that cannot always remain valid. Having said that, the necessity to ensure Cornell graduates develop into (at the very least) competent writers persists. Regardless of field, a college graduate should possess the ability to express herself clearly and directly, and formulate a cogent argument. Further, the individual attention the seminar provides students is undeniably valuable. Cornell is not alone in requiring Freshmen Writing Seminars. Princeton, Harvard, Penn, Columbia, Yale and Dartmouth all have similar programs. At both Princeton and Harvard, each freshman must take one writing seminar. Penn also requires one writing course, however the requirement differs slightly between the University’s schools. The same goes for Columbia and Yale. In short, writing requirements are relatively ubiquitous across the Ivies. However, this cannot justify the inadequacy and error in the notion of a writing course — especially because the one Ivy League university that escapes presence on this list, Brown, seems to have developed a legitimate alternative.I know, Brown doesn’t have requirements, so their comparability to other more “traditional” curricula may be questionable. But perhaps Cornell can adopt at least some of Brown’s slightly more individualistic attitudes. Brown, believe it or not, has a writing requirement. As stated on the University’s website: “Brown’s open curriculum has long supported one general education requirement: that all students demonstrate the ability to write well.” While Brown offers writing courses as a way to improve students’ writing, it is (rather than the administration’s insistence) the student’s responsibility to find a way to demonstrate proficiency in writing. In order to declare a concentration, undergraduates must explain what writing they have done and plan to do and maintain an online portfolio of their writing. In addition, a professor can give a student a “writing check” if his writing falls short, which requires that the student meet with his dean to design a student-specific way to improve his writing.While I’m sure this — as most systems — has its share of inadequacies, the general philosophy seems a bit more sane than Cornell’s general writing requirement. Rather than writing half-assed, throw-away essays for the sake of writing essays that only count as proof of our basic understanding of the function of an introductory paragraph, students become accountable for the ongoing development of their writing. Now that I’m a sophomore, I will never think about a quote sandwich again; I will think about the relevance and development of my ideas. However, to be held accountable for the communication of these ideas beyond an extra one-year course requirement may be more pertinent to development as a scholar. Ruby Perlmutter is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences and a Sun Arts and Entertainment Editor. She may be contacted at rperlmutter@cornellsun.com. Having Said That appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Ruby Perlmutter