Harvey Mudd, Claremont McKenna Revamp Writing Programs

Last fall Harvey Mudd College (HMC) implemented a new core curriculum with the goal of better preparing its graduates for the demands of the professional world. HMC alumni identified written communication as one of the areas in which their undergraduate education could have been improved. The change, according to Wendy Menefee-Libey, Director of Learning Programs at HMC, was the result of input from faculty, students, and alumni over the last decade.

At the rest of the Claremont Colleges, writing requirements are also under scrutiny.

“Scripps is in the process of revising its Writing Program,” said Kimberly S. Drake, Director of the Writing Program at Scripps College. “I don’t want to speculate on the changes since we’re still in the early stages.”

Claremont McKenna College (CMC) professor Audrey Bilger, Faculty Director of the Center for Writing and Public Discourse, also reported changes to CMC’s writing requirements this year.

“The Freshman Writing Seminar (FWS) is a new course that we just started teaching this year,” she said. “It replaces a course called ‘Composition and Literary Analysis’ and seeks to provide first-year students with writing instruction in a theme-based course. Topics vary based on the interests of the instructors.”

No major changes were reported to Pomona College’s or Pitzer College’s writing programs. But according to Menefee-Libey, “faculty across the U.S. are emphasizing writing more and more.”

With the arrival of HMC President Maria Klawe in 2006, the college began a Strategic Planning Process (SPP) designed to evaluate the effectiveness of HMC’s core requirements.

“Classes were cancelled for three days and workshops were held,” Menefee-Libey said. “Many alumni were invited to share their input. A number of alumni on the faculty were also very involved.”

Although no immediate policy changes resulted from the 2006 SPP, HMC’s Office of Institutional Research, which is responsible for evaluating the ways in which the college can improve the quality of instruction its students receive, revealed that some alumni had expressed dissatisfaction with the level of rigidity in HMC’s core curriculum as well as the amount of writing instruction provided. One senior said of the old core curriculum, “It made it impossible for students to take a foreign language their freshman year because of all the other requirements.”

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and its counterpart, the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement (FSSE), are surveys used around the U.S. to gauge student and faculty perceptions about the academic and social environment their schools provide. HMC has been participating in the NSSE and FSSE for several years, but in 2008 the NSSE responses revealed a disturbing trend: students felt as if they were acquiring fewer professional writing skills than their peers at other institutions. This news, in conjunction with the 2006 findings of the SPP, drove Harvey Mudd to implement a new core curriculum in 2010. A Writing Course Subcommittee was formed to advise a larger committee, which would then create the new core curriculum.

The new curriculum, according to a 2009 report written by the writing subcommittee, should include a writing course that “assign[s] two or three papers… whose combined length should be between ten and twelve pages in final form.”

“The new curriculum would include two required writing classes, ‘Researched Based Writing’ (Critical Inquiry 10), and ‘Introduction to Academic Writing’ (Writ 1),” Menefee-Libey said. These courses would be aimed at closing the gap in writing instruction that some HMC students said was lacking.

“I think the requirements will continue to adjust as we learn from our ongoing assessments and as the faculty conversation about writing in the curriculum continues,” Menefee-Libey said.

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