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Phasing In a New Writing Requirement

Guest Column Michael J. Ring

MIT's writing requirement was established to prevent science and engineering graduates from taking the myopic view that there is no value in clear, effective prose. It is ironic that Phase One of the writing requirement is itself myopic, fostering no appreciation or enthusiasm for writing among MIT's freshman class.

Writing is critical in many fields, including science and engineering. Researchers, for example, depend on funding from corporations or the government and must make convincing arguments to these bodies that their programs of study are worthwhile. It is certainly important for MIT to foster good writing skills, if only for these purposes.

Currently, MIT is planning to overhaul the writing requirement, and several fundamental changes will appear in the years ahead to address the present problems. But while future changes are welcome, we need some immediate action on the present Phase One of the writing program to make the system better for students in the next several classes.

In its present form, the Freshman Essay Evaluation asks students to respond to trivial questions. One option available to this year's freshman, which counted for 50 percent of the total grade, was to describe a person who the writer viewed favorably at first but grew to dislike, or vice versa. Such questions do nothing to make freshmen appreciate writing; instead they reinforced notions that writing is frivolous. This question had no application to science, engineering, economics, architecture, or any other major here at MIT. Instead of challenging students' creative intellect, the authors of the test drafted an unimaginative question suitable for elementary school children.

Most freshmen view the writing examination as a chore, another hurdle on the tumultuous course of Residence and Orientation Week. Instead of encouraging freshmen to enjoy the writing process, Phase One fosters a loathing of the writing process.

The Committee on the Writing Requirement is wrong to think that two hastily written essays finished in two hours is a fair and honest assessment of a student's writing ability. A true masterpiece of writing is a polished gem, often undergoing several transformations before reaching perfection. But the committee did not ask for edited, revised works from members of the freshman class, and it received papers full of scratches and scribbles. Idoubt any members of the freshman class would say that the Freshman Essay Evaluation displayed their best writing. It is ludicrous to evaluate these poorly written, scrawled essays as representative examples of a student's ability.

The FEE's current practices result in an artificially low passing rate of 17 percent. More than one out of six MIT freshmen can compose convincing, effective prose given adequate time to revise and check their work, but the shortsighted policies of the Committee on the Writing Requirement force over 80 percent of students who took the Freshman Essay Evaluation to enroll in a writing class or go through the hassle of submitting a paper to the committee.

The FEE is in need of reform. It needs to be reoriented toward challenging scientific questions, and it should allow ample time for students to properly compose their thoughts, write a well-formulated essays, and proofread their work.

It is also time for the Committee on the Writing Requirement to examine alternate means for freshmen to complete Phase One of the requirement. The committee already permits freshmen who failed the examination to submit a piece of expository prose from any of their MIT classes. Why not allow high school seniors accepted to MIT to send the committee a paper from one of their courses or from advanced placement history, language, and psychology classes? Since so many students who have taken these classes choose to come to MIT, the Institute should reward them for their hard work and outstanding writing by allowing them to pass Phase One before setting foot on the MIT campus.

The Committee on the Writing Requirement should also accept a score of 5 on the Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition Test as satisfactory for passing Phase One. Currently, the committee accepts only scores of 5 on the Advanced Placement Language and Composition Test. The Advanced Placement Literature Test demands that students learn how to persuade readers, through writing, of their opinions and ideas on literature. No person succeeds on the Advanced Placement Literature Test without clear, organized, thoughtful writing.

Finally, the committee should also consider membership in a campus publication as sufficient for passing Phase One. Students who write or edit for a newspaper or journal show they recognize and appreciate the power of writing. Writers and editors at campus publications are volunteers; they choose to work at publications because they love and enjoy writing and wish to improve their skills. This attitude should be promoted fully by MIT's writing requirement. Encouraging participation in school newspapers and journals is one positive step the committee can take toward ensuring all MIT graduates will possess and admire fine writing skills.

According to the MIT Course Bulletin, the objective of the writing requirement is "to ensure competency in writing of all undergraduates, with special emphasis on writing in professional contexts, and to see that clear, effective writing is valued and fostered throughout the curriculum as an essential part of an MIT education." Unless major reform is undertaken on the Freshman Essay Evaluation and new alternatives for satisfying the requirement formulated, Phase One cannot be said to satisfy these critical goals.

Michael J. Ring is a member of the Class of 2001.