Other FAQs

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University Writing Seminar


Frequently Asked Questions


For Students

How many WI courses do I need?
Two. One of the WI courses can also be designated as Oral Communications.

Do I need to fulfill the requirements before I graduate? Can I get another course designated WI retroactively?
All writing requirements must be fulfilled prior to graduation. No courses will be designated WI retroactively by student petition.

For Instructors

How do I have a course listed as Writing Intensive?
To have a course listed as Writing Intensive, you must apply by submitting the Request for Writing Intensive Course form and your syllabus to the Senior Academic Coordinator in the English Department.  The Writing Intensive Committee will review all submissions. Please attach a copy of your syllabus with the writing intensive form to Rebecca Mahoney (MS 023).

What is a Writing Intensive course?
At Brandeis, most undergraduate programs offer Writing Intensive (WI) courses that meet certain criteria:

  1. Require a significant amount of writing: 18-20 pages, 4,500-5,000 words.
  2. Allow for revision based on instructor feedback.
  3. Use writing for teaching as well as for evaluation.
  4. Instruct students on how to carry out the writing assignments.
  5. Include writing quality as a significant factor in the course grade.

How long does a WI designation last?
Previous practice required new approvals each time the course was taught. This has been changed. Now approval continues as long as the course's Writing Intensive components remain substantially unchanged. If a major change should occur, simply resubmit the course for WI approval.

What kind of writing does a WI course need?
The writing can be a mix of formal and informal, including drafts, journals, response papers and thesis-driven papers.

If I give a 30-page final paper, does that make my course WI?
No. If the final paper is the only writing students do, it does not qualify. What matters more than the length of the final paper or the sheer quantity of the writing is whether writing has been used as a way of mastering the course material and whether students have a chance to revise. We stress the writing part and the intensive part.

What counts as revision?
Traditionally, revision means submitting a draft for the instructor's corrections, then resubmitting. But there are many other types of revision: paper proposals, preliminary outlines, writing that count as drafts used in peer editing or a paper's opening pages submitted for response. Multiple drafts gone over in conference make for some of the most productive revisions. The key to successful revision is the chance for you to give meaningful feedback throughout the process of writing, not just at the end.

Can I limit revision to just the weakest papers?
All writers—strong and weak alike—benefit from revision and feedback. If you limit revision to the weakest papers, you don't give the good writers enough chance to get better through your comments and questions.

I'm busy teaching my subject matter. How can I find the time for writing instruction?
The writing instruction does not have to be elaborate, and it can take many forms:

  • Checklists that set forth your expectations for writing in the course.
  • Demonstrations of effective theses and necessary supporting material.
  • Sample student essays, with your annotations.
  • Exemplary texts from the literature of the field.
  • Attention to the different types of writing in your field.
  • Discussion of your own experience and practices as a writer.

A premise behind WI courses is that you're teaching your subject when you're teaching your students to think and write about it. Well-planned writing assignments can actually help teach the course material, not just serve to test whether students have learned it.

Can't writing instruction be done by the English Department?
Brandeis first-year students take a University Writing Seminar, a one-semester writing course taught by doctoral candidates, the majority of whom are from the English Department. This 14-week course can do a fine job of introducing students to the demands of academic discourse, but it can only do so much. As at other universities, Brandeis requires each discipline to build in additional writing instruction beyond the first year. The premise is that individual departments know best how to teach the particular discourses that characterize their own disciplines.

Do I have to teach grammar and punctuation?
No, but you do need to insist on good grammar and punctuation, particularly on writing handed in for a grade. It doesn't pay for you to give a close and careful reading of papers that have really bad grammar and punctuation, especially if you suspect student carelessness or ineffective proofreading. Insist that students edit papers first and then resubmit.

Every Brandeis student should have a good handbook from their UWS course in the first year; we currently recommend Diana Hacker's A Writer's Reference available in the campus bookstore. High standards of accuracy, close attention to proofreading using Hacker's text and suitable encouragement from all instructors can make a big difference.

It is helpful for faculty members to draw attention to serious problems in grammar and punctuation, particularly if patterns of error are repeated. But faculty members should not be expected to proofread student papers. Students need to learn to do that on their own.

What if students still need extra help with writing?
The Brandeis Writing Center (extension 6-4885) on the first floor of the Goldfarb Library is available for consultation throughout the academic year. It is staffed by trained, experienced graduate student/consultants, whose tutoring will supplement but not replace the careful attention to writing in a WI class. Undergraduate and graduate students may sign up on the spot for consultations about their writing or they may sign up online.

I'm worried that teaching a WI Course will require a lot more work. How can the workload remain manageable?
You don't need to correct and grade every piece of student writing, particularly much of the informal, in-class writing you assign. If you explain your approach to students, you can collect and read assignments without spending time grading them, though you can refer to them in class or conferences. (Some instructors simply mark such assignments as done instead of assigning a letter grade.) You can also save effort—and improve the writing—by giving meaningful, early feedback on a small portion of a paper or on a prospectus, while saving the full correcting for the next-to-last draft, which will then be revised and resubmitted for a grade.

Not every draft needs extensive comments. Sometimes the most effective feedback is a brief comment on the adequacy of the thesis or about the quality of the supporting arguments, rather than a laborious correction of an entire draft. What might at first look like a writing problem is sometimes a sign of an inadequate thesis or a poor understanding of what makes an effective presentation or argument within the discipline.

Won't some students keep resubmitting papers over and over for a higher grade?
Some students might want you to become their editor or proofreader, even asking to submit drafts by email. While such attention to writing might seem admirable, it can take up far too much of your time over minor changes and corrections. One solution is to insist that students revise only a certain portion of a paper—say the thesis or the introduction—or to permit a strictly limited number of revisions and resubmissions. The ideal is to get students to become effective revisers of their own work before they hand it in to you, so you can spend time on the crucial question of how the writing connects to their thinking about the issues in the course.

Some of the drafts students hand in seem pretty rough.
Inexperienced students can sometimes regard all drafts as rough drafts, and frequently their papers seem totally unfinished, or display a certain "last minute" quality. That's one reason experienced instructors won't read anything but a "good" draft, one that has been worked on for a while. Have the students revise and edit before you even see the paper.

Think of the writing process as involving a number of distinct stages: developing an adequate thesis or claim; supplying adequate support; and presenting the material in an appropriate format. You can require a "good" draft of work at any of these stages. Students can work on rough drafts in groups or out of class. But the drafts they hand in to you should be ready for you to take as serious efforts, not just as first passes.