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Beyond the Writing Requirement

Guest Column
Jason Harmon Wasfy

Mumbling speakers, incoherent presenters, confusing writers. To many in the world of business, science, and technology, the idea of hiring an MIT student conjures up images of incompetent communication. Despite boasting often masterful technical and problem-solving skills, too many MIT undergraduates leave the Institute without the writing and speaking abilities crucial to advancement and leadership in the private sector.

That’s why the faculty and some Institute Committees have formulated the new Communications Initiative. In its final year of the transition phase, the initiative is slated to usurp the old Writing Requirement next fall for the class of 2005. Unlike the Writing Requirement, the Communications Initiative will place writing and discussion squarely in classrooms, not only in HASS subjects but in science and engineering courses as well. The Writing Requirement merely evaluates writing competency -- it does little to help students achieve it. And the Writing Requirement fails to include public speaking. The well thought-out Communications Initiative will address many of these deficiencies.

But no faculty initiative will solve students’ communication woes on its own. We who serve on Institute Committees and who work in student government can certainly reformulate requirements, but we can’t change how individual students choose to approach their undergraduate experience. Students need to take their communication skills into their own hands.

A big part of the problem is that few people embrace tasks or activities that they find difficult. Entering MIT students rate among the brightest technical wizards in our nation and the world. They come from high schools where electives are few, and English and history form the backbone of the curriculum. Why push oneself to bolster speaking and writing skills after doing just that throughout high school, especially when one’s interest and ability lie elsewhere?

The answer is that powerful speaking and clear writing empowers people, in any field. Good communication makes better citizens, because they are more able to clearly articulate ideas about society and individual lives.

And perhaps more enticingly, good communication allows engineers, businesspeople, and scientists to direct and inspire co-workers, leading to promotion and more responsibility. Writing memos to a boss with the spelling mistakes and grammar flaws of a seventh grader looks unprofessional, no matter how quickly the writer can analyze a distillation column or predict an economic forecast.

To more directly empower themselves, MIT students need to embrace communications challenges. Too often, students thumb through the HASS Guide, picking out HASS-D courses mainly because of skimpy reading and writing loads. Some students walk into the HASS office asking for advice about HASS courses, having already restricted their choice to less time-consuming 9-unit courses. Students should consider choosing HASS and HASS-D courses because they are challenging or particularly interesting, not because they are easy. The hard work now will pay off dividends later with a better career.

Reading good national newspapers and magazines also is a solid step towards greater empowerment. Many national publications provide insightful analysis on local, national, and world issues, and their pages often exemplify crisp, straightforward prose. Writing clearly requires reading good writing, and students looking to improve their communication skills would serve themselves well by exposing themselves to solid models of clear writing.

Students should also ask questions and promote discussion during lecture and recitation. That makes class time more interesting and less didactic, and is a wonderful opportunity to practice concise, clear speaking in front of a large group. I’ve found that MIT students are reluctant to speak up in class, even when they don’t understand the material that they know that an upcoming exam will cover, and the professor is begging with wide eyes for students to speak up if they don’t understand. Speaking up in class not only helps lecturers gauge how well the class understands the material and allows students more explanation on difficult points, but also makes good sense for improving communication skills.

Last spring, at a meeting of faculty and students who serve on Institute Committees, President Vest called the Communications Initiative the most noteworthy of legislation coming out of the faculty this year. I agree. But meaningful, positive change in the communications skills of MIT graduates will only come from students taking the initiative to develop and refine the tools that will be so crucial to their futures. That self-motivated initiative is worth more than all the legislation the faculty could ever pass.

Jason Harmon Wasfy, a member of the Class of 2001, is the student representative on the HASS Oversight Committee.