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Committee Plans Plans to Revamp Institute Writing Requirement

By Venkatesh Satish
contributing editor

The Committee on the Writing Requirement will soon present to students a preliminary proposal to eliminate the current Phase I and Phase II requirement and replace it with a system that will place greater emphasis on communication skills in the undergraduate curriculum.

The proposal would require students to take a "communication-intensive" class each of their four years at the Institute, said Kip V. Hodges PhD '82, chair of the Committee on the Writing Requirement.

"This initiative to change the writing requirement is motivated by our belief that MITat the present time does not give our students the writing and speaking skills necessary for professional success," said Professor of Science and Writing Alan P. Lightman, a member of the Committee on the Writing Requirement.

The details of the proposal, which was endorsed by the Committee on the Undergraduate Program in May, will be finalized after students give their input to the plan this fall, Lightman said.

The finalized plan would then require approval from the faculty to take effect, Lightman said.

It would take approximately seven years to completely change the current system, so current students would not be affected by the proposal, Lightman said.

This lag time is mainly due to the sheer number of classes that need to be added to the curriculum, the care needed to create special departmental classes, and the time necessary to hire new instructors whose sole job would be to help students improve their writing, he said.

Students would take yearly classes

"The culture at MIT is such that students put a lot of work and enthusiasm into their major field. If it isn't [made] clear that writing skills are important," then students will not improve those skills, Hodges said.

Students could theoretically satisfy the yearly communication class requirement in a number of ways, including taking specialized writing courses, seminars, or classes in their department that incorporate "practica," six-unit subjects that integrate communication skills with the material in a traditionally technical field, Hodges said.

Members of the committee are planning to hold a series of informational sessions starting in October at which students will be able to voice their opinions about the proposal, Hodges said.

The first such meeting might be held in a large auditorium, and subsequent ones might be held in specific dormitories or independent living groups so students could interact with committee members in an informal environment, Hodges said.

"I am sure there are things we haven't thought of that the undergraduates can help us with," he said.

Alumni input sways committee

In conceiving its proposal, the committee considered responses from alumni regarding their education and preparation for the workplace, Hodges said.

Alumni "felt that although they got a great technical education, they found they were at a loss compared to a lot of their cohorts in their jobs regarding communication skills," Hodges said.

"If in the long-run you want to do interesting things in science and engineering, you are going to have to convince other people what you're doing is important," said CUP Chair Charles Stewart III, associate professor of political science.

"It is the power of the language in grant proposals that get scientists funding," Stewart said.

Many humanities subjects currently offered do not give students enough feedback on their writing skills, Stewart said. So new subjects will have to be created or the old ones adjusted to fit the model outlined by the Committee on the Writing Requirement, he said..

Proposal will offer balance

"One of things we are very concerned with is that [students] are overworked. We don't want to just add another layer of work," Hodges said.

To accommodate the new writing classes, it would seem that some technical content in the curriculum would have to be sacrificed, Hodges said.

However, "if you are clever in the way you do this, you won't have to take away much technical content," Hodges said. "We're not trying to subvert the things that MIT is good at" doing, he said

For example, the practica would add only a few units to a student's schedule as an attachment to a technical subject to work on students' communication skills, Hodges said.