For all that Claremont McKenna prides itself on preparing students for life after college, many students will find their entrance into the “real world” hindered by deficiencies in their writing. Students scoring that great summer internship at a newspaper or government agency find themselves having to quickly pick up a more practical style of writing. Similarly, students can graduate from CMC having only taken a few classes where writing was a requirement at all. Given the importance of effective communication to any career, the current support for student writing on campus is inadequate. Fortunately, upcoming changes to CMC’s Writing Center promise to add valuable new resources for student journalism, business writing and creative efforts. Even so, students will have to recognize the need to improve their writing if these measures are to be effective.
Even talented student writers can often find that skill in academic writing doesn’t translate to immediate success in the workplace. The writing that might please a history professor, for example, is going to be very different than the writing an internship supervisor wants in a health awareness pamphlet directed at employees with an eight-grade reading level. Laura Suscheski CMC ’11, a former Section Editor for the CMC Forum, says that she had to learn the style of writing needed for her summer internship at a newspaper “on the job.” The dense and often dry structure of academic papers can be poor preparation for jobs that require simple or engaging communication.
Students can often look in vain for opportunities to practice their writing, with many receiving their only direct writing instruction from their Lit 10 classes. Chloe Cotton CMC ‘12 described her Lit 10 class as “a repeat of AP Lit from high school. There was a lot of analyzing literature and not a lot of work on improving your own writing.” The lack of writing opportunities, however, can also be ascribed to the student culture at CMC, which can be dismissive of attempts at different types of writing and self-expression. Last year, for example, ASCMC proposed cutting The Vernacular’s budget, reducing the literary magazine’s funding from $1000 to $200 with the suggestion that the magazine simply publish online rather than give student writers the satisfaction and pride of seeing their words in print. Apart from student publications, The Vernacular represented one of the few student forays into nonacademic writing.
In response to this student frustration and lack of opportunity, CMC’s faculty and administration has recognized the desire and need to improve student writing in many disciplines. Beginning next fall, CMC’s Writing Center will move into the new Kravis building and become The Center for Writing and Public Discourse (CWPD). Professor Audrey Bilger, who became the first-ever Faculty Director of the Writing Center in the fall, will oversee several changes to the Center’s organization and focus. In addition to continuing the one-on-one student writing consultations and workshops under the new management of Associate Director Christine Crockett (CMC ’01), the new CWPD will expand its support to include many nonacademic types of writing. Long-term plans include the possible creation of a new Journalism Sequence and bringing more writers to campus to share their insight with students.
According to the official press release that Professor Bilger shared with The Port Side, the addition of “Public Discourse” to the Center’s title and responsibilities “speaks to the need for students to be trained to write and communicate in a wide variety of contexts, using all available technologies.” Social media, business environments, the sciences and journalism all require some sort of discourse, whether through a written medium or a spoken one. Even the most technical of professions will require some type of communication. Given that CMCers are often cast as “Leaders in the Making,” how many of us are confident enough in our writing skills to construct an appropriate email to a potential client or an irresponsible employee? Unlike previous manifestations of the Writing Center, the addition of “Public Discourse” to the Center’s title acknowledges that a student’s audience will not always be professors or other students in an academic environment. “We want writing to be seen as an activity that takes place in many different arenas, with many different audiences,” Bilger said. “Discourse is always shaped by the particular audience to whom it is addressed.”
One of the most exciting changes to the Center’s programming is the increased support of student journalists. Apart from Professor Pitney’s Politics of Journalism and Professor Bilger’s own Women’s Magazines and the Female Journalist courses, CMC journalists have little in the way of academic guidance. Bilger hopes to change that. The Writing Center has already brought local journalists to campus to hold workshops, such as the “Art of the Interview” presentation given by Lori Kozlowski of the LA Times in February as a part of the Center’s “The Craft of Writing” workshop series. Future plans include bringing a journalist to campus for the academic year to provide experienced advice for students hoping to enter the field. The eventual hope is that these journalists-in-residence will be able to contribute to classes to develop the proposed Journalism Sequence.
None of the Claremont Colleges currently offers a major or minor in Journalism. Given the interests and career aspirations of CMC students, Bilger pointed out, it makes sense for the college to take the lead in incorporating Journalism classes into curriculum. The type of classes that such a program offered would be effective preparation for students hoping to enter related fields upon graduation. “Considering CMC’s ‘pragmatic’ focus, a journalism sequence would be a great addition to hone the practical writing skills of those who want to be journalists and even those who want to be involved in politics one day,” observed Sucheski. “Journalism classes would be useful not only to those who want to write professionally, but to those in any career in which the media plays a major role.” Although she admitted that she might not have added the sequence to her major, Sucheski said that she would have taken many of the classes offered by such a program.
In addition to the increased support for journalistic writing, business and creative writing are also to receive more attention. The “Craft of Writing” series has also brought local business writers and comedians to campus and many of the resources to be offered by the CWPD will address the need for effective communication to many different audiences in different careers. “The chance for students to have a public audience for their writing is unprecedented, particularly considering the number of possible venues available online,” Bilger said. “Students need to learn to write for a public audience as well as for audiences within the academy.”
Changes to the current Lit 10 program have also been proposed. Under discussion among the faculty is a potential “Freshman Writing Seminar,” modeled more closely after the current structure of Freshman Humanities Seminars, and involving a greater emphasis on writing skills. Unlike Lit 10, Freshman Writing Seminars would be mandatory for all incoming students. Final changes to the Lit 10 program will be voted on by the faculty in late April.
The increased focus on resources for student writing and presentations reflects a desire to elevate the writing culture on campus. Bilger reports that “students have described the current writing culture at CMC as being fragmented. Many express a wish for opportunities outside of the classroom to hone their writing skills. Through co-curricular programming–workshops and other events–the Center for Public Discourse will aim to meet that demand.” Broadening the conception of writing skill to include the arts, sciences, business environments and journalism will encourage students to take the craft of writing – and themselves as writers – more seriously. Although many of the forthcoming changes to the Writing Center do speak to the more pragmatic aspects of CMC’s culture, much of the change stems from a hope to empower student writers. Professor Crockett notes that students are often hesitant to participate in student journalism or other publications because of anxiety about “putting themselves out there” and receiving the scrutiny of their peers.
Nonetheless, the desire to improve and learn can be seen in the student response to the Writing Center’s early workshops and programs. All of “The Craft of Writing” series workshops have filled up within hours of the workshop being announced by school-wide email. The proposed programs of the CWPD will be a new and welcomed resource at CMC, and will better prepare us for writing in the world beyond essays. Additionally, it will help free the idea of “writer” from a skill in the academic realm.“Students want to be writers,” Bilger argues. “Who doesn’t want to be thought of as a writer? My hope is that, with some of our new programs, we can turn on the light for students who didn’t think they were worthy of that title.”