Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Engineering the writing requirement

On my previous post on obstacles in college faced by kids on the spectrum, gasstationwithoutpumps comments:

The mistake is in going to a school that lets English professors teach writing. Writing is a skill that has nothing to do with literary criticism, which is all most English professors are trained in.
True enough. Of course, most schools do let English professors teach writing. But, as I look around, I'm noticing that many schools also let professors in other departments teach courses that satisfy the writing requirement. Here's the description of one at Penn:
WRIT 038 301 Art of Engineering 
Fulfills the Writing Requirement 
While the study of engineering involves performing calculations and solving equations, what does the practice of engineering involve, and how has this changed over time? Guided by Eugene Ferguson’s Engineering and the Mind’s Eye, we will consider the concept of engineering knowledge and how it has been developed and disseminated through the centuries. From moving the Vatican Obelisk in the 16th century to launching satellites into orbit in the 21st century, visual and communication skills have been critical to the successful completion of engineering projects, even though they may be more arts than sciences. Taught by a licensed Professional Engineer, this seminar will lead students through an exploration of engineering as a multifaceted endeavor and it will encourage students to enrich their understanding of the breadth of skills that successful participation in the field encompasses.
Indeed, some schools (e.g., this one) allow every department to offer courses that satisfy the writing department. This makes eminent sense. All fields involve writing; there's no reason to think that English professors are any better at writing, or at teaching writing, than professors in other fields; and if college (as nearly everyone now claims it is) is all about preparing kids for the real world, why limit writing training to analyzing fiction?

But here's the problem. When you're dealing with autism, you're dealing with multiple constraints. In J's case, it was crucial to avoid schools that (1) had liberal arts distribution requirements; (2) were too far away for him to live at home and commute by public transportation; and (3) didn't offer majors in math or computer science. Plus, the school actually had to actually let him in. And, while J managed to get in to all nearby schools he applied to, considerations (1)-(3) narrowed down his options to exactly one school. Even if we had taken a close look at what third semester "Writing and Rhetoric" entailed before making that choice, none of the other choices would have looked any better.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

When choices are severely constrained, there may be no good choices, so one makes the least-bad one. Most students will not have as many constraints on college choice as J, so looking for engineering writing courses in college is good advice for most would-be engineers.

Incidentally, it is probably not a matter of letting professors in other disciplines teach writing, but of forcing professors in other disciplines to teach writing. Teaching writing is hard work, and most faculty happily leave it for someone else to do.

TerriW said...

One of the writing programs we use -- IEW -- was originally born out of the African History department at Dalhousie University. Dr. Webster found that his students were coming in unable to turn in a decent paper, so he began to spend the first ten minutes of every class on how to write and slowly developed a fairly sophisticated rubric for research papers. Enrollment in his classes began to rise because word got around that if you wanted to learn how to actually write, you wouldn't take classes from the English department, but instead: African History.