The Semester transition will not only affect every student on campus, but also the existing programs and courses. The writing program is no exception—it will undergo major changes during the transition to semesters.
The new program proposal went through faculty senate last fall, but since then it has not yet been approved by the school administration. Therefore, the features of the future writing program are just proposals and might still change
The new writing program will be similar to the well-known six-phase program that students have worked through these last several years. However, the new program is designed to work more closely with the students and to meet their needs in a more developmental way. The emphasis of the new system will be on portfolios students assemble during class. The different steps, in turn, will no longer be called “phases.” Lynn Horth, director of the writing program, said: “They are not called phases anymore, just portfolios. Because what does phase mean anyways?” The word portfolio describes the actual outcome of the classes.
The new system will have six major elements: Writing Seminar, First Year Experience (FYE), Argument and Inquiry program (A&I), Sophomore Portfolio, Junior Portfolio and Senior Portfolio. The rationale behind this change is to better coordinate the portfolios with students’ classes. The new program will allow students to include pieces they draft in class in their portfolios.
Incoming freshmen will still take the Writing Seminar and First Year Experience (FYE) classes. They will create and submit portfolios in conjunction with these steps in the program, just as they do today.
One of the most notable changes to the program is the “Argument and Inquiry” element, or A&I, which should be taken during sophomore year. This step entails six semester hours, two courses, and is led by three professors from different academic units. It will address a variety of questions from different perspectives. Horth said: “The focus will be on big ideas, big questions. ‘What’s creativity? What’s truth?’ But from three perspectives, such as Biology, Philosophy, and Mass Comm. You will have three professors coming at that big question from different points of view.” The program also tries to satisfy students with different interests and opinions at the same time. Horth said, “The purpose is that students are not just getting a Phase 3 class in one discipline they may or may not care that much about, but this way they will get argument and inquiry from three different disciplines. Ideally, they will have at least some kind of interest in one of them, which will make it more compelling.”
Another big change is the Sophomore Portfolio, which will replace the current Phase Four submission. The new portfolio is modeled after a similar system at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Horth said: “The Council of Writing Program Administrators has endorsed it as one of the model portfolio systems. So, it is not like we are making this new portfolio up on our own.” The Sophomore Portfolio is designed to be a snapshot of the first two years of college and should prepare students for the upper class work conducted during junior and senior year. Horth said, “The idea is for students to be able to get honest feedback as to where they stand.” Students will receive a “grade” recording their level of proficiency on their transcript, which follows the practice at Carleton.
The current Phase 4 step in the writing program is not always popular among students, and the number of students who pass on the first submission is rather small. Horth said: “Probably the biggest fear that students have is that as many people are going to fail the new system as are going to fail the old one, and that is not the way it is being designed. It is being designed to be tied much more closely to the actual writing practice that they will have had in their classes. That is at the core of our meetings right now. To design something that is realistic for students at the sophomore level.”
The Junior Portfolio, which replaces Phase 5, will be tied to a class juniors have to take. The grade will also be recorded on the student’s transcript.
The Senior Portfolio replaces the common Capstone, and might also be much more similar to actual classes and will not necessarily have to be a capstone as it is today.
Overall the Writing Center is excited about the changes that have been proposed. Ellen Sprague, one of three Writing Center Instructors, said: “In a lot of ways it just makes more sense. The current program, which was created ten or twelve years ago, was innovative at that time. But high school instruction has changed and students have changed, and some of that has to do with technology. So when we look back and ask ‘What do we need now?’ this new system makes sense.”
Erica Popp, who is a 2009 Principia graduate and now works for the Writing Center as a visiting faculty member, looks forward to seeing how the changes will affect students positively. She said: “I am excited about the changes in the Writing Program and how that turns out. I think it is better integrated in the whole curriculum, and will be better for everyone, Writing Program staff, professors, and students.”
If the proposal gets passed by the school administration, the incoming freshmen in fall 2011 will be the first to be on that program. Currently enrolled students will still finish their degree with the old six-phase system. However, the semesters will change their cycle too. Another part of the new system is the plan to grade the portfolios not during the term, but during the break. That means there will only be one submission date per semester, while there are two deadlines in the current program. This will definitely affect current students who have not yet passed Phase 4. Horth encourages them to try to pass their Phase 4 this year. She said, “They will still be on the old catalog, but they won’t have as many times to resubmit.” This might be one of the biggest issues affecting current students. A letter explaining what the transition to semesters will mean for current students who still need to pass their Phase 4 portfolio is being sent out next week.
Overall, the Writing Center is using the semester change to renovate their program on a big scale and make it more interesting, fun, and useful for the students as well as for the professors.