Dismayed by the poor quality of student writing, the University of Maryland at College Park will double its English composition requirements next year.
Students already must take the traditional freshman composition course, and now most of them will be required to take the new writing classes as juniors or seniors. About 5,000 upperclassmen are expected to enroll in 250 sections of advanced composition next fall, with a passing grade in the course a prerequisite for graduation.
The new program comes in response to a formal request from the College Park faculty that something be done to correct the downward spiral of students' writing skills.
"It's been sort of a vicious circle," said Michael Marcuse, coordinator of the program. "As the students' writing skills went down, the faculty became less and less willing to assign papers or give exams that required the students to write. That brought the writing skills down further.
"We want the faculty to assign papers, and we do not want them to pass students who cannot express themselves in their discipline."
Students in the new courses will be expected to write clearly on topics related to their majors, but in a style for nonspecialized readers.
The advanced classes will be limited to 20 students each, and only students who received A's in freshman composition or scored 700 or higher on College Board exams will be exempt from the requirement. This means more than 90 percent of Maryland undergraduates will be required to take a junior or senior-year writing course.
The classes will be taught by senior faculty members and professional writers instead of the graduate students who traditionally teach such courses.
The added requirement comes at a time of rising concern at colleges throughout the nation over deteriorating writing skills among students, and it reflects an increased emphasis on the teaching of writing in colleges and universities.
Earlier this month 2,400 representatives of nearly 1,500 colleges gathered in Washington to discuss ways to improve students' writing, and in recent years, new and upgraded writing programs have been launched at major institutions such as Harvard, Yale, the City University of New York and the University of Michigan.
Maryland's new writing classes will be taught by faculty members from all departments, on the theory that clear expression is vital to all academic disciplines. The freshman writing program is completely within the English department.
"Writing is not a kind of knowledge specialty that belongs exclusively to a group of experts within the English department," said Marcuse. "It's a little like physical education. You don't have to be a phys ed major to want to exercise or say in shape."
Pressure for the new writing requirement dates back seven years to the fall of 1973, when an ad hoc committee urged the creation of an advisory group on English composition. The underlying philosophy was a faculty conviction that "compositional skills need to be reinforced beyond the freshman composition program, and that other departments must also be responsible for insisting on high standards of literacy."
Eventually the committee recommended, and the faculty senate concurred, that in addition to freshman composition, an advanced composition course should be required after the completion of the sophomore year. The proposal was approved by the board of regents for all students entering the university in the fall of 1978 -- next year's juniors. Since then, faculty members have been working to design the new program.
Students will have a choice between a course in advanced composition, which will require the writing and revision of short papers, and a course in technical writing, which will require work-related compositional tasks such a technical definitions, descriptions of mechanisms and technical processes, proposals, progress reports and a formal technical report with a bibliography, footnotes, table of contents, an executive summary, appendices, glossary and graphic aids.
Among the senior faculty members who have volunteered to teach a section of the new course is Alan Pasch, a member of the philosophy department at College Park since 1960.
"Several years ago I became very much concerned about the literary skills of our students, especially the quality of the term papers we were getting from our philosophy majors," Pasch said.
He decided to experiment with a course in analytical writing within the philosophy department, and he is currently offering it for the fifth time.
"The students seemed to like it, and it seemed to help their writing," said Pasch."When I started the course, I found I had forgotten most of my high school grammar, but it all came back to me. I believe a faculty member who is himself adept in the use of language is in a position to teach writing regardless of where he is on campus."
In addition to regular faculty members, professional writers from outside the university will be recruited to teach the advanced composition courses. Special classes will be held during the summer to train those teachers.
Maryland's program closely parallels one being instituted at the University of Michigan, where all undergraduates in the colleges of literature, science and the arts will be required next year to pass a course in writing within their major fields.
"No one will be allowed to graduate unless he is certified as literate by his department," said Daniel Fader, a professor of English and chairman of the English composition board at Michigan.
"The students we're getting now are products of the television era, and they come to us largely unpracticed," Fader continued. "They're as bright as they ever were, but they find they have more and more difficulty writing as less and less writing is expected of them."
At the City University of New York now, all juniors are required to take a proficiency exam in writing, and those who do not pass must take a course in composition to be eligible for graduation.
Yale University just this year installed writing tutors in each of its 12 residential colleges, while Harvard is in the process of upgrading its one-semester freshman expository writing course, the only course required of all Harvard undergraduates.
"What the students have the hardest trouble doing is writing an essay that hangs together," said Richard Marius, who came to Harvard two years ago from the University of Tennessee specifically to upgrade the freshman writing program. u
"They can't make an essay move from paragraph to paragraph so that the end of the essay is the conclusion to the first part. We're trying to do in 12 weeks what the high schools and elementary schools failed to do in 12 years."