In defense of first-year writing classes

by Blake Campbell / Arts Columnist • September 18, 2013

General education classes often get a bad rap from college students. At Emerson, this is particularly true of the two required writing courses for first-year undergraduates. Ask any upperclassman at Emerson about Introduction to College Writing or Research Writing, and you will probably be met with a groan, or, at best, flippant laughter. These two required freshman classes aren’t exactly held in high esteem by the majority of the student body, and it’s quite common for  writing, literature, and publishing majors in particular to feel a little indignant about having to take them. 

But these classes can be immensely helpful—often more so than the average student realizes. [Even as a junior, I frequently hear my classmates talking about an author’s “call to write” when discussing a text, thanks to a little book by Emerson’s own John Trimbur, the professor who put together The Call to Write, a textbook requirement for most Emerson freshmen.] I continue to feel the impact of the classes on my writing and that of my fellow students. And these classes aren’t just helpful to aspiring writers. They provide lessons applicable to every major Emerson offers, and are one of the best means for the school to acclimate new students into college and into their professional lives.

Freshmen, your writing classes are fantastic opportunities not only to grow as a writer, but also to grow as a thinker, and they can help to shape your identity as you adjust to a new academic environment. Here are some tips for getting the most out of them:

 Keep an open mind. You may have taken some pretty rigorous classes in high school that required high-level writing; you might have even taken a few courses through a local college. But don’t breeze through your writing classes thinking the curriculum is just a rehash. There may be a little overlap, but you will also acquire skills in your freshman writing class that will build positively on what you already know. Each individual professor offers unique insights and advice that can help you both academically and creatively. I came to college fairly confident in my writing abilities, with a few AP and dual enrollment courses under my belt. But by the time I finished Intro to College Writing, my papers were more structured, and I could develop significantly clearer and more convincing arguments through my prose. 

 Mingle. This is a rare opportunity to converse with classmates of different majors in a classroom setting. The gen eds that Emerson requires are largely lecture classes; they may offer chances for class discussion, but usually don’t provide opportunities for open dialogue like first-year writing classes do. Most sections of these courses have strong workshop and class discussion components—valuable opportunities to learn from your classmates and hear different perspectives on various issues. Emerson is a small school with specialized majors, and as you continue with your education, the pool of people with whom you share your core classes will gradually shrink. This is a great chance to make new friends across academic disciplines.

 Challenge yourself. This is a foolproof means of avoiding boredom in your classes. Most sections have some degree of openness in your choice of subject matter and approaches to the assignments.  Pick a topic to write about that you find meaningful. For my Research Writing class, I chose to explore the controversies of the Lacey Act, a conservation law that had recently been amended to restrict the interstate trade of several exotic snake species. One weekend, I hopped on a bus to interview a reptile breeder in the suburbs to gain some perspective on the new regulations, a trip that turned into an exciting misadventure. I got hopelessly lost in the Medford/Somerville area, had a surprisingly uplifting conversation with a drunken Philip K. Dick fan who was sitting next to me on the bus, and eventually found my way to the breeder’s shop. The breeder spent the better part of an hour showing me his extensive collection of tarantulas, geckos, poison dart frogs, and snakes. The entire ordeal was a bit uncomfortable at first, but it ultimately improved my communication skills, my understanding of the exotic pet trade, and my ability to navigate the city’s bus system. Other students in my class chose topics as varied as prostitution and the ethics of Disney films — important issues that encouraged the class to think and write on a higher level. 

 Above all, remember that every course you take is only worth the effort you put into it. It’s cliché, but it’s true. You’re attending a world-class college in one of the most culturally rich American cities. There are fascinating things happening all around you, and you’ll get the most out of your undergraduate years if you learn to recognize and act on these opportunities.