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Themed UWriting classes offer variety

First-years registering for classes on Thursday will have the chance to sign up for a University Writing section that focuses on readings in American studies, gender studies, or sustainable development—continuing the themed classes that began this semester.

Undergraduate Writing Program director Nicole Wallack said that she wanted to create themed sections to teach students to apply college-level writing skills outside of a traditional English class setting. As the program continues in coming semesters, Wallack said she hopes to expand the variety of themed sections available to include topics in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

“One of my ambitions is to have courses that go even more in the STEM area—artificial intelligence, neuroscience,” Wallack said, adding that she was encouraged by the sustainable development faculty’s willingness to experiment alongside the English department.

After two years in the planning stages, four sections of each theme debuted this fall, as well as two UWriting sections specifically for international students. All 14 sections will be offered again in the spring, in addition to 72 traditional sections of UWriting—50 for CC and SEAS students and 22 for GS students.

“The thought was to let the instructors teach and develop curricula together, come up with material for an archive of our own, and make this as unified an experience for students to underscore the principles of the class,” Wallack said.

She added that she thought the new options would strengthen interdisciplinary relationships among leading researchers, faculty, and students.

Roosevelt Montás, director of the Center for the Core Curriculum, said that Core administrators are always looking for ways to engage students with different academic interests.

The English department already has partnerships with the American studies and gender studies faculty, which is why Wallack turned to those fields first. “It was easier to begin this experiment with people we knew,” she said.

Wallack acknowledged that the relatively high turnover rate for graduate instructors—50 percent stay on year to year—and the limitations of their areas of study would make the addition of science themes harder to implement.

In UWriting—a Core Curriculum class required of first-year students in Columbia College, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the School of General Studies—students analyze and respond to short essays to develop their writing skills. The introduction of a directed focus of readings comes with new challenges for instructors and students.

“This is first and foremost a writing class, but when you carry the conversations all the way through, it’s tempting to talk about the issues,” said Nicholas Neely, who teaches a sustainable development section. “This can distract from learning the writing, but it has been very rewarding in the end.”

Kamay Jin, CC ’16, who is in Neely’s section, said that she enjoys the focus of sustainable development but would have preferred a broader range of topics and discussion of the analysis of articles rather than an emphasis on a single field.

“Sometimes it’s an endless treadmill of writing, writing, and writing,” she said. “Learning how to read articles, so that we can see what the professor sees, would be helpful.”

For UWriting instructor Aaron Ritzenberg, who teaches one of the American studies sections, the course has still proven effective, even with different readings. Some of those readings include the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

“The philosophy is the same,” Ritzenberg said in an email. “The best academic writing begins from a place of deep inquiry.”

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to a 50 percent turnover rate for graduate instructors as a relatively low rate, rather than a relatively high rate. Spectator regrets the error.


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Anonymous posted on

Frontiers of Writing, what WHAT!?