August 2013 Features

President’s Column

Preparing students to communicate effectively as writers and speakers

Dear Friends,

Presidents_ColumnIt is a pleasure and honor to have the opportunity to serve the College as interim president for the next two years. In my next several columns for the Alumnae Bulletin, I want to provide a window on some of the ways in which Bryn Mawr is shaping liberal arts education for the 21st century. 

I will begin with one of our most fundamental educational commitments:  our ongoing efforts to prepare students to communicate effectively, whether as writers or speakers. Bryn Mawr, of course, has always believed that writing is a tool of critical thinking and that cogent expression reflects and shapes thoughtful analysis. Bryn Mawr is not alone in this view. The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), a research and advocacy organization, identifies written and oral communication and critical and creative thinking as core—and synergistic—intellectual skills and essential learning outcomes of liberal arts education.

Interestingly, employers surveyed by AAC&U over the past decade overwhelmingly and repeatedly say that oral and written communication skills are among those they wish colleges would emphasize more. From both an intellectual and a “practical” perspective, we will serve our students well by paying careful attention to ways we can enhance their writing and speaking. 

Before 1997, the yearlong English 015 course was a Bryn Mawr rite of passage and the only required writing course. In 2012–13, the faculty passed a new writing requirement intended to affirm our commitment to the importance of writing in a liberal arts education and to enhance students’ ability to align their preparation in writing for post-graduate study or work.

All first-year students will continue to take the one-semester Emily Balch Seminar, which introduces them to the type of critical reading, writing, and thinking that is a foundation of intellectual inquiry. This fall, students will choose from among 26 seminar topics that range from “Exploring Time’s Pendulum,” taught by two scientists, to “Bookmarks: Technologies of Writing and Reading from Plato to the Digital Age,” taught by an English professor with research interests in new media.

Beginning in fall 2014, students will also be required to take a writing-intensive (WI) course in their major. Writing intensive courses will be small, will require a substantial amount of writing, will orient students to practices of disciplinary writing, and will allow students to focus on writing at a later moment in their undergraduate development when they are developing more sophisticated analytical skills. Students will be able to tailor their WI course selection to their individual course of study and their plans beyond Bryn Mawr, and they will have the flexibility to select a WI course from among those with different foci (scholarly writing, policy writing, writing for the public sphere, etc.). I am excited by the faculty’s strong endorsement of this new requirement and by the commitment it represents to nurturing the growth of student thought and expression.

Bryn Mawr has also enhanced how it supports writing instruction. In addition to open access to peer tutors at all levels, the writing center now offers a Writing Partners program for first-year students and senior thesis writers to meet regularly with the same peer tutor over the course of a semester. The center today includes professional ESL tutors to bring specialized expertise to international students, and the ESL coordinator also offers additional writing courses for those who come to English as a second, third, or even fourth language. 

The College also launched the Public Speaking Initiative (PSI) in 2012–13. In its inaugural year, PSI offered campus-wide workshops (e.g., Presenting and Defending Your Senior Thesis); assisted faculty in developing assignments that involve speaking and presentations; and ran in-class workshops.

I believe that we can and must do more to give our students the ability to be as compelling and cogent speakers as they are writers. For example, I hope we will forge connections between PSI and the Center for Leadership, Innovation and the Liberal Arts staff to help students hone the interviewing and presentation skills that they need to obtain internships and fellowships, as well as postgraduate jobs and graduate school placements.

Critical reading, thinking, writing, and speaking underpin intellectual life at Bryn Mawr. These abilities are among the most important learning outcomes for our students no matter what pathway they choose beyond Bryn Mawr. In renewing our attention to how we hone these skills among today’s students and with an eye to the ways in which communication is changing, we ensure the vitality of our learning community and give our students tools of expression and thought that will last a lifetime.

Kimberly Wright Cassidy