One of the most unique qualities about Sarah Lawrence College is its emphasis on writing. Outsiders frequently find the fact that tests are a rarity here difficult to believe, often going so far as to question the legitimacy of our academic model. Evidently, these outsiders have never dealt with conference work. Anyone who has been through a semester and has had to work on two or three 20 page papers knows that the academics here are certainly no joke.
This emphasis on writing is something that the college prides itself on, and it is seen as a core part of the academic system. Writing is given importance across many different disciplines, even within various math and science courses which would likely be entirely test-based at any other institution. Recently, however, there have been several criticisms, coming mostly from faculty, about a decline in the quality of student writing over the past few years.
Professor Jefferson Adams, who has been a member of the History faculty at Sarah Lawrence since 1971, said on the subject, "I share [these criticisms] to some extent. I think one thing that is always difficult in making any sort of judgments is that you have such a small sample and certain kinds of students tend to gravitate towards you over the years. I think the thing that I'm most concerned about is a decline in idiomatic English. Words don't match one another, and phrases are often skewed. I'm always asking students, have you read the paper over? How does it sound to you? It should sound natural. And I think the computer and some other tech things are eroding the ability to speak idiomatic English." He continued, "The main culprit is probably the technology. And I'll defend the technology, I'm ambivalent. It's an enormous blessing in a lot of ways, but I think one of the casualties is student writing."
Some critics of student writing quality at Sarah Lawrence have suggested that admissions should do a more thorough job of evaluating prospective student's writing skills from the academic paper they are required to submit. Professor Adams, however, said, "Admissions shouldn't be looking for accomplished writers, they should be looking for students who are interested in learning how to write. It's not a question of how polished the product that you receive is, but how much willingness there is to expose yourself to a school that will insist on better writing."
Professor Nancy Baker, who has been part of the Philosophy faculty since 1974, said, "My experience is that writing has gotten better. However, not everyone in every discipline is interested in or good at teaching students how to write.” She continued, “What surprises me is that those students who say they’ve never gotten any critical feedback often don’t even know of the existence of writing help on campus." She still stressed the importance of faculty stepping up to help with student writing, saying, "Students who need work on it, often tell me when they are juniors and seniors 'no one else has ever helped me work on my writing.' This is inexcusable. My concern is with teaching students how to write, not with the fact that writing in general is better or worse in the student body."
Professor Bill Shullenberger, who has been part of the Literature faculty since 1982, noted that many of these criticisms are very anecdotal. "I do hear a lot of this, it is often from people who have specific students in a specific class who really do have writing problems but I'm reluctant to generalize. It's hard to look at a long-term trend." He recognized that, "there are students who I think come here without the sort of writing preparation that you would like them to have but from my perspective, that has always been the case. I also feel that if students get here, it's our obligation to help them do the work as well as they can." He continued on the subject of a supposed decline, "I've always found that in any given class, there will be maybe three of four or five students who are really doing outstanding work from the get-go and just getting better. There's a broad range of students in the middle who are doing creditable well to good work, and then there are maybe, sometimes, two or three who need a lot of extra work on their writing, and I don't think the proportions have changed that much [since I've been here]. I might even say that I have more people on the upper end now than I did when I first came here." He added, "I try to be critical, but in constructive ways. Students still bring a lot to the table when they're doing their work and I respect that."
by Janaki Chadha '17
illustration by Rachel Ritter '17