November / December 2006
I hear the lament from faculty all the time: “Why don’t MIT students write better?” And I hear one from students as well: “How can I learn to be a better writer?” Happily, there is an answer: faculty can encourage students to enroll in an introductory writing subject –21W.730, Expository Writing; 21W.731, Writing and Experience; 21W.732, Introduction to Technical Communication.
Most importantly, the CI-HW subjects are a gateway to critical and analytical thinking across the disciplines, a preparation for the thinking-through-writing that students will be asked to do in many of their courses throughout their years at MIT.
In all CI-HW sections they are asked to read carefully and critically, to evaluate and challenge ideas, to develop ideas of their own for writing, to craft shapely arguments supported by appropriate evidence.
Some of our students are required to take one of these courses (CI-HW) during their first year because of their performance on the Freshman Essay Evaluation (FEE). But those of us who teach in the first year writing program, and many other faculty as well, believe that more students should elect to take a CI-HW class (about 30 freshmen currently elect to take a CI-HW subject each semester, along with about 40 upperclass students).
Contrary to prevailing opinion, there is nothing at all remedial about these subjects. They are rigorous, intellectually rich, and interesting, and they offer students a great deal of practice in critical thinking, writing, and revising. While each section has a thematic focus for reading and writing, the underlying principle of every subject and section is that students learn to write by writing frequently, getting generous feedback, and revising every major assignment. The real subject of CI-HW classes, in other words, is writing. In that way they differ from other CI-H subjects in which students have opportunities to write, but typically do not receive a great deal of explicit instruction in writing as part of the process of the course.
We clearly can’t promise to make everyone who takes a CI-HW class into an accomplished writer in a single semester, but we can promise that the students are firmly placed on the right path to becoming competent writers, able to take advantage of the opportunities for ongoing development of their writing abilities that the Communication Requirement is designed to offer them. A number of CI-HW sections have been published on OpenCourseWare; reviewing them on the OCW site is an excellent way for interested students and faculty to get a thorough sense of how those courses work. Descriptions of the CI-HW sections offered each semester can be found at the Writing and Humanistic Studies Website: web.mit.edu/humanistic/www/classes.shtml. And if you have questions, please e-mail me.
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