Choose Your Own Freshman Comp

November 11, 2009

NEW YORK – Some colleges debate whether writing is best taught by writing experts or professors in other disciplines. City College decided not to make a choice.

In fall 2007, as part of a revision of its general education curriculum, the City University of New York institution ditched its catch-all writing requirement and introduced the discipline-specific Freshman Inquiry Writing Seminar (FIQWS).

Freshmen are required to take this six-credit seminar, which is organized around a specific topic. Students spend three hours with a full-time faculty member focusing on the specific topic and then another three hours with a writing instructor -- typically a graduate English or writing student -- who uses content from the topic section to teach college composition. These two instructors collaborate throughout the semester, shaping the curriculum and sharing the grading of assignments. To ease freshmen into college instruction and create a “learning community,” each seminar is limited to 22 students.

This fall, nearly 60 different topics are being offered, involving full-time faculty members from all of the college’s disciplines in freshman instruction. Some topics include “Comic Books and Conflict: Studying Society through Graphic Novels”; “Midwives, Healers and Physicians: Medicine and Culture in Anthropology”; and “Energy: What We Use and Where It Should Come From.” Between the topic and writing sections, students are expected to submit between 20 and 25 pages of graded writing during the semester, including a 7 to 10 page research paper related to their seminar’s overall topic.

Developing New Curriculum

Josh Wilner, an English professor and a member of the committee that developed FIQWS, believes the new curriculum has revitalized what was once a hollow freshman requirement at the college.

“It’s a false assumption that if a student takes a one-size-fits-all writing course that the skills learned within are going to be more transferable than those learned if a student gets experience in a more disciplinary context,” Wilner said. “I’ve taught both types of courses, and that generic model just doesn’t work very well.”

Robert Melara, professor and chair of the psychology department and head of the FIQWS faculty oversight committee, asserts that the skills learned in these topic-specific writing seminars are transferable no matter what discipline a student chooses.

“It’s got to be better than slogging through the same essays in freshman comp,” Melara said. “When you immerse yourself in a subject you come up with better ideas and you hone your logic. When you just look at a subject on the surface, how good can your analysis be? Psychology, for instance, is a writing-heavy major. Frankly, we’ve been disappointed with the quality of writing we’ve seen in recent years from our students. Hopefully, FIQWS will help remedy that. Being able to take a problem, go through various perspectives and defend it: you have to do that it almost every discipline.”

Initial studies show that the program is having a positive impact on student retention. In fall 2007, when FIQWS was introduced, three-fourths of the freshman class still took a traditional freshman composition class. (By the next semester, the program was fully in place.) Still, when comparing the cohort of students who took FIQWS that semester with those who did not, 97 percent of students in the program returned the next semester, compared to 85 percent of other students.

Melara argued that the early data suggest the program is achieving its aim of improving student performance and retention. Still, he noted that professors will truly be able to judge its impact when they see how these newly trained students write in their upper-level courses. In addition, he hopes that some FIQWS students will consider psychology, or other majors they may have not considered, because of their experience in their seminar.

Though the new composition seminars appear to be making a difference, the college had to make a number of sacrifices in order to implement such a dramatic change to its general education requirement.

For instance, Ellis Simon, City College spokesman, noted that the cost of running the FIQWS program is estimated to be 20 to 25 percent more than that of the freshman composition program it replaced. He added, however, that even though two instructors are now required instead of one, changes to other courses have brought down overall expenses. For instance, the college eliminated its second writing requirement, which, unlike the original freshman composition course, was discipline-specific.

The program also takes away faculty members who teach upper-division coursework within their discipline. Each department is required to have a set number of FIQWS instructors each semester, relative to its size. Though faculty jumped at the idea of teaching these specialized courses, their department heads were initially less enthusiastic.

“Most full-time faculty won’t do a course like this more than once a year, so the impact on their own programs is not that great,” Wilner said. “Also, most of these sections are just in the fall. Some chairs were more resistant to this than others, but when it came time to vote, there was a solid majority in favor.”

To account for this reduction of instructors’ loads within their department, some chairs are reshuffling upper-division courses to make room.

“As a chair, I have to surrender five of my faculty to FIQWS every year who would normally teach a major-level course,” Melara said. “To make up for this, those psychology FIQWS instructors who normally would have taught, say, 35 students and done everything themselves, I’m making teach larger sections of their regular courses with teaching assistants.”

The New Classroom Experience

Shylaja Akkaraju, a biology professor, teaches the topic section of the FIQWS entitled “What is a Gene?” This is the second time she has team-taught an interdisciplinary course and, so far, she is enjoying the experience. Still, for a science professor teaching students in a composition course, the course does come with its share of difficulties.

“Mostly, I teach nursing students, so this is a nice change,” said Akkaraju, a full-time instructor at Bronx Community College who was brought in to teach this course at City College. “This class takes most of my time because writing each lecture takes me several hours. Trying to figure out how much of the topic I should go into is a challenge. It’s much more straightforward teaching nurses. There’s set material and we have tests here, here and here. With this course, I’m finding out as I go along what I should do and what I should drop. I ask my students all the time to tell me what works and what doesn’t.”

Sitting in on Akkaraju’s topic section, one could easily mistake it for an introductory biology course. A good portion of the day’s lecture focused on the age-old nature versus nurture debate in the context of modern-day genetics. Still, Akkaraju insists that the course is more theory than practice. For example, there is no lab. Perhaps the only reminder that this is a section of a composition course is her frequent references to aspects of gene behavior and theory that her students might use in their final term paper.

Evelyn Reid, an English graduate student teaching the composition portion of the “What is a Gene?” FIQWS, hasn't decided if she prefers teaching within this new model. She was an instructor of one of the traditional freshman composition courses the college dropped last year.

“I don’t know if I like this better or not,” Reid said. “I’m also not sure if this is more engaging. Still, there are some aspects that are better in this model. For example, my students are pretty bonded as a group and are a lot more focused on the subject at hand. That’s a benefit the old model didn’t have. Still, I think the success of the course sort of depends on how well the instructors work together and how well their course materials synch together.”

The students in Akkaraju and Reid’s seminar are predominantly biology majors, although a few are undeclared but mention they would like to pursue another science. Most of them say this accounts for their interest in this particular FIQWS.

“If we were taking some general writing class, we’d probably be writing about Shakespeare or something like that,” said Nada Awad, an 18 year-old freshman biology major. “That just doesn’t appeal to me, so this is a lot more interesting. I mean, it’s not all about biology. We can connect what we’re learning here to other subjects, too.”

All 20 students in the seminar said they thought the writing section was much harder than the topic section. As a result, all of them also noted that they prefer having a second topic section of their interest to just taking a singular writing section, as was the case under the old requirement.

“I feel like we use this topic to be able to develop our writing,” said Rosmery Rodriguez, an 18 year-old freshman biology major. “In the end, it’s all about our research paper, so they’re just giving us a topic to focus on.”

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