University needs to replace inadequate UWC - now


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University needs to replace inadequate UWC - now**

Pop quiz. Question: Name the one required class at Duke. Answer: University Writing Course (UWC). Question: What class do students most frequently cite as their least intellectually stimulating class at Duke? Answer: UWC. Question: Should Duke keep the UWC program? Answer: No.

When I was a freshman, I had little understanding of what questions interested the different academic disciplines. Professors in each of the disciplines have made it their life's work to answer questions of importance to them. Though it is difficult to explain the significance of a specific physics, English, computer science or history question without a background that most first-year students would not possess, professors should be able to explain the general nature of questions within their field. For example, what exactly makes a question for economists as opposed to one for sociologists, for chemists instead of physicists? Without a doubt, first-year students could benefit from a systematic exposure to both the different disciplines and the questions that those disciplines address.

Since Duke presumably wishes to maximize students' intellectual experiences, the university has clearly made the calculation that an undergraduate's college experience will without question prove better for having taken UWC. In other words, a student could take no other course during his or her freshman year that would provide a benefit greater than that of UWC. If this assertion regarding university beliefs was not true, why would UWC hold such a prized role as the only required course?

Since every student takes UWC, however, it is impossible to judge whether or not the course has a demonstrable impact on a student's experience. Moreover, it has been so long since the program was implemented that even if we had reliable data regarding the average student's writing ability during his or her second semester at Duke from the times before UWC, external changes in high school education and technology would render the comparison meaningless. In fact, given the current structure of the UWC program, there is no reliable gauge of the program's effectiveness.

Additionally, UWC is a skill class. A skill class is one that has no intellectually potent purpose beyond the development of a practical tool. It is difficult to find any skill classes offered at Duke other than UWC four, five, seven and eight. Other writing classes such as the dramatic, scientific or creative writing courses focus not only on the skills, but on their purpose and role as well. Choosing the correct style in which to present an idea, so as to create the maximal impact, has more to do with the analysis of the idea and an understanding of the stylistic strengths of different writing forms than with the simple application of writing principles. Using an SAT style analogy, we might say: UWC is to a specialized writing class as a class on Microsoft Word is to a class in computer programming.

In my view, any course which Duke requires all students to take should, minimally, meet three criteria: It must have measurable benefits; it must achieve some purpose beyond mere skill building; and it must provide some service that no other course provides. Added benefits, such as a focus on writing assignments as evaluative mechanisms, could come with the course but would not provide the primary focus. UWC satisfies none of these conditions: It has no measurable benefits; it is entirely skill building; and, most significantly, its benefits are not unique. Writing will necessarily improve with practice as TAs and professors provide interested students feedback on writing style in their classes.

Duke should replace UWC with a program organized along the following lines. Administrators should put together a cadre of professors and graduate students representing the different academic disciplines. Each member of this group should develop a presentation centered on the general question, "What topics does your discipline address and what are the primary means of analysis for answering those questions?" Secondarily, the presenters should answer why these questions are interesting and important.

The course would meet twice a week in large lectures where students would hear from one or two different disciplines at each lecture. Once a week, students would break into small discussion groups centered around the ideas presented during the lectures. Students would write a number of papers over the course of the semester addressing those questions they find interesting and why. The assignments would have a twofold purpose--firstly, to generate writing samples on which the TAs and fellow classmates could comment and, secondly, to force students to think about the possibilities they'll have when deciding on future courses.

This program meets each of the criteria for a required course. We would call the program successful if it made students fully aware of all of the undergraduate possibilities available. The benefit would be one of intellectual growth and stimulation in new directions, and finally, it would be a benefit that no current Duke course already provides.

The time has long past for Duke to replace UWC with such a course.

Alex Rogers is a Trinity senior.


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