Its opponents call it terrible, a painful burden that provides useful skills only to a mere fraction of those forced to partake in it. A similar hatred prompted Blaykyi Kenyah ’19 to write earlier this academic year that “to say [he] did not enjoy [his] seminar was a gross understatement.” When I nervously questioned upperclassmen prior to undergoing the experience myself, they also labeled it a coming-of-age experience, or even a necessary evil.
I am writing, of course, about the freshman Writing Seminar program, that supposed bane of every Princeton student’s existence. But it should not be so. Writing Seminars serve an important role in the beginning of every Princetonian’s college career, and they ought to be protected and valued. More importantly, as an institution, the Writing Seminar program should no longer be forced to defend its existence against those that question its practicality.
The Writing Seminar program does not exist to protect the liberal arts education for its own sake, but rather it exists because it makes students more informed and better equipped to do anything in academics. Writing is more of an art than a science. Its beauty lies in its subjectivity, and as a result of that, every writing class has value to every person in it, regardless of their starting position, if only to facilitate an opportunity to have someone experienced and unfamiliar critique your writing.
In other words, while Albert Einstein would surely gain nothing from retaking an algebra class, Mark Twain might find a writing class on late 19th century American literature quite useful. Twenty different pairs of eyes have twenty different takes on any one piece of literature, particularly when they are attached to the heads of experienced, professional professors. This is because writing requires the delicate and highly subjective combination of eloquence and structure. Learning to navigate that divide is useful both in dealing with complex mathematical proofs, arguing for the presence of a theme in a novel, and testing hypotheses in a science lab.
This is the most important advantage of a mandatory writing program, and this is outlined clearly on the Writing Seminar department’s website, where it is noted that the department's focus is teaching students to “structure complex ideas.” A key component of this goal is the Writing Seminar’s emphasis on quality analysis, while allowing subject matter to vary widely between classes. Unfortunately, this component is seen by many as negative, even prompting Mitchell Hammer ’17 to write in a 2014 article that “the various choices of subject matter and distinct teaching styles required by such subjects are self-defeating.” This might be true if the goal of the Writing Seminar program were to create interest in a specific subject. But it isn’t. The goal of the Writing Seminar program is to teach writing, and different subject matters make that notion palatable to those less inclined to participate in writing-heavy courses. After all, Princeton has distributional requirements, and no one would argue that satisfying the QR requirement by taking MAT 216: Honors Accelerated Analysis I is the same as satisfying it with MAT 100: Precalculus/Prestatistics. Different experiences in Writing Seminar are small prices to pay when the alternative is having a one-size-fits-all class that nobody would look forward to taking.
At the very least, the Writing Seminar program informs students about the high expectations of Princeton essay writing, regardless of each student’s starting level of comfort with analytical writing. That is the problem with arguments like that of former columnist Erica Choi ’18 in a 2014 article in which she states that having only one level of Writing Seminar is equivalent to “placing a person who is conversationally fluent in Spanish and someone who is a beginner in the same course.” The linear nature of a foreign language sequence, in which a student knows more and more of a language as they progress through the levels, is inherently different from writing in general. There is no escaping the requirement to write well at Princeton. You can avoid a certain math course or a history course, but you will have a hard time escaping writing, and you will never escape the critical thinking skills that the Writing Seminar program requires you to learn.
Though often a source of stress due to its workload and endless stream of deadlines, the Writing Seminar program is worthwhile due to its versatility and almost universal applicability. Despite being only a few weeks removed from going through the program myself, I can already see its effect in my work and my ability to craft arguments. My Writing Seminar taught me to tackle ambiguity head-on. It taught me that the most insightful arguments are those that occur organically, and to let ideas flow before organizing them in any regimented order.
The Writing Seminar, though difficult, does a good job of producing better writers, and more importantly, better thinkers. For that reason more than any, it is undeserving of the criticism that it faces.
Tom Salama is from Bayonne, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.