Unexpected Audience

Freshmen at Brown had no idea that anyone other than their academic advisers would be reading what they wrote, but their letters were being evaluated by writing instructors.
September 9, 2009

In recent years, Brown University has asked its incoming freshmen to write candid letters to their academic advisers. To students, the objectives seemed simple: to introduce themselves, to share goals for the next four years, and to show they had read the summer reading assignment.

There was no promise of confidentiality, but some incoming freshmen in the classes of 2011 and 2012, just out of high school and perhaps a bit naive, concluded that only their advisers would read the letters, The Brown Daily Herald reported.

Instead, the students’ letters were also read by staff of the university’s writing center, who gave advisers a heads up on which freshmen might need extra help with their writing. Katherine Bergeron, dean of the college, said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed that it was “a way to enhance advising by giving advisers a sense of whether they should direct students to take a writing-intensive course in their first semester.”

It was a way to bolster the student advising process, but until this summer incoming students were unaware of it.

Brown’s 40-year-old “new curriculum” has just four undergraduate graduation requirements, three of which have proven relatively noncontroversial: each student must complete 30 classes, pay eight semesters of tuition and fulfill a concentration. But the fourth requirement has emerged as most vexing, requiring students to demonstrate “competence in writing” without mandating that students ever take an explicitly writing-intensive course or complete a senior thesis.

As Brown worked on reforming its curriculum – the Task Force on Undergraduate Education worked from March 2007 to September 2008 – two writing instructors at Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggested that incoming students be informed of the audiences for their letters, Bergeron said. “We told students this year that people other than their advisers would be reading their letters precisely so that they would work hard and do a good job on them.”

Though she stressed it was not her intention in past years to mislead students through omission, Bergeron “also wanted to underscore that these letters weren’t confidential.”

In her letter to the class of 2013, dated June 2009, she gave this notice: “I should mention that your letter will be read by a few other people, as well … the specialists in Brown’s Writing Center will read your letter to get a sense of your strengths or weaknesses as a writer”; she went on to say that the leaders of each student’s small discussion group for the summer reading assignment would read the letters as well. She added: “For both of these reasons, we ask that you give this first college reading assignment some careful attention and thought.”

Almost all of this year's 1,485 freshmen submitted letters, Bergeron said, and fewer than 5 percent will be asked to take a writing-intensive course or otherwise be asked to pay special attention to improving their writing skills during their first year.

Linda Adler-Kassner, president of the Council of Writing Program Administrators and director of the first-year writing program at Eastern Michigan University, said it was important for Brown’s incoming freshmen to understand who would be reading their letters and why they would be reading them.

“Students had one purpose and one audience in mind for their writing and then it was used for another purpose and another audience,” she said. “That’s not a fair way to evaluate their abilities.”

Two summers ago, Michael Frauenhofer, now a junior majoring in literary arts, wrote a letter to his academic adviser that he thought would illustrate his love of poetry and his aspirations to hone his craft while at Brown. He wrote his letter in what he described as “a poetic way, in lines and stanzas.”

Instead of getting acclaim from his adviser, the nontraditional letter got him flagged as an incoming freshman whose academic writing skills were not up to par. “They never told us our letters had to be academic writing,” he said. “If I had known it was going to be judged that way I would’ve written what they expected.”


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