Verbum Ultimum: A Write of Passage

Further standardizing Writing 5 would improve first-year life.


Writing 5 is a requirement and rite of passage for most Dartmouth students. While some students are required to take Writing 2-3 and others may opt to take the Humanities track, the majority of first-years are divided among sections of Writing 5 in the fall or the winter, with 36 in the former and 34 in the latter. There, the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric notes that students are introduced to “the writing process that characterizes intellectual work in the academy and in educated public discourse.”

The gateway course to many students’ understanding of how to write and communicate at a collegiate level, Writing 5 is of paramount importance. Whatever courses a student goes on to pursue, strong writing skills are critical. The best of ideas will be lost if no one can understand them, after all. Writing skills are also invaluable when applying to the many campus organizations that require applications, a need again emphasized later during the job and internship search. In high school, many future Dartmouth students may have learned to write formulaic five-paragraph essays. For many, Writing 5 is the first exposure to writing intended to convey original ideas, not just to regurgitate information taught days before.

However, Writing 5 — as it is currently constituted — can produce a wide variety of learning outcomes. By splitting first-years into fall and winter sections, close to half the incoming class spend not just their first term but most of their second without solidified college-level writing skills. These students could be at a disadvantage. Without the skills learned in an effective Writing 5 class, the group of first-year students who take Writing 5 in the winter is stuck trying to play catch-up for at least an extra term.

Changing the way Writing 5 is structured and standardizing its content while still catering to a wide range of interests is essential if Dartmouth is to successfully convey essential skills in writing and communication to its incoming students. Not all of the issues with Writing 5 have simple fixes, but some standardization is possible. Offering Writing 5 classes in only fall term could be a much-needed solution for students forced to play catch-up throughout winter under the current system. More faculty would be required to teach Writing 5 in the fall under this plan, but that could well benefit students who would have access to a greater variety of course topics as their instructors proliferated.

This shift would be relatively simple, and there are already enough professors to make it possible. Every winter, Writing 5 is offered for some first-years while First-Year Seminars are offered for those students who took Writing 5 the previous term. During winter term, every first-year student is therefore enrolled in a writing class. If Dartmouth currently has the resources to teach enough classes in the winter, it should be able to do the same in the fall. So long as this is compatible with faculty schedules, shifting Writing 5 courses to fall term would be extremely beneficial to students for consistency’s sake.

Of course, moving all Writing 5 classes are useful when the content of the courses benefits students. While the variety of topics offered is impressive, there are differences in standards and expectations course-to-course. In some courses, students may be expected to create a short film. In others, they may be required to write in-class essays each day. While professors have criteria they are required to follow for Writing 5 courses, the requirements are loose enough that some core skills can be easily missed.

Writing 5 students all learn how to craft a thesis statement and how to string together grammatically correct sentences, writing at least three formal papers for a total of no less than 7,000 words. Writing 5 professors are also expected to guide students through revisions, editing for style and different ways of interpreting texts. But beyond those requirements, professors teach writing in fundamentally different ways. Regardless of the classes’ or professors’ focuses, whether they specialize in film studies or biology, Writing 5 courses should prepare students to write well in all capacities.

Dartmouth may benefit from a set of codified, concrete expectations for Writing 5 courses beyond what is currently offered. The classes must teach all first-year students the same basic tenets of writing. Concision, clarity, style and usage are all critical skills for those coming out of Writing 5 courses. All of these skills can be imparted while still offering a variety of courses in topics that interest a wide range of students.

Writing is a skill that is valuable across every career path and every part of life. Dartmouth has a responsibility to impart students with the skills of argumentation and clear, concise writing necessary for collegiate success. The College should rework its guidelines for Writing 5 to ensure basics are covered first and foremost. To do so, it can start by providing Writing 5 to all first-years in the fall term.

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.

Correction Appended (Oct. 27, 2017):

The Oct. 27, 2017 editorial "Verbum Ultimum: A Write of Passage" was updated to correct a misspelling of the word "tenets."