Students in a First-Year Writing Seminar

FWS Requirements

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Indispensable Reference

FWS Requirements


Teaching a First-Year Writing Seminar means that you have agreed to assume responsibility for a seminar that through introductory work in a particular field of study helps students learn to write effective expository prose—prose that, at its best, is characterized by clarity, coherence, intellectual force, and stylistic control. First-Year Seminars pursue this common aim through small classes and adherence to a program-wide set of guidelines. Offering a course for the Knight Institute constitutes an agreement to comply with the following guidelines:

  1. Seminars should require at least FIVE—and at most eight—formal essays on new topics, totaling about 25 or more pages of polished prose. Assignments should form a coherent sequence. Instructors should receive the first essay no later than the beginning of week two, and the second in the subsequent two or three weeks. These early essays provide instructors with an opportunity to introduce their students to the kinds of writing and thinking required in the course and to get a sense of them as writers. At least THREE of the remaining essays should go through several stages of development. Within the great diversity of FWS topics, this guideline provides an important commonality. Students, Cornell faculty of other courses, and graduate schools the students may later attend—all should be assured that this amount of writing is standard in every seminar.

  2. A minimum of THREE of the 5–8 required essays (see above) are developed through several stages of revised drafts under the instructor’s guidance. Guidance may include, in addition to written commentary on drafts, individual conferences, in-class group work, peer commentary, reading responses, journals, and so on. This approach to the teaching of writing ensures an important continuity in methodology among FWSs. Instructors should encourage the understanding of writing as a process and as a means of learning by requiring suitable kinds of preparatory and informal writing. Instructors should provide ample opportunities for students to develop their writing through preliminary written work; students learn how to assess their own (and others’) writing, determining what is good, and why, and what needs to be rewritten. Instructors should comment efficiently on completed written work, and each completed essay should be returned with “transferable” comments before the next one is due. Responses should be planned not to justify a grade but to help students learn how to improve their writing.
  3. All seminars spend ample classroom time (about half) on work directly related to writing. For suggestions on how to use such time, see The Elements of Teaching Writing by Keith Hjortshoj and Katy Gottschalk. There is no point at which students are “too good” or already “too competent” to benefit from discussions of language and of writing. Instructors help students understand the relevance of all discussions to their learning to write.
  4. Reading assignments in the course subject are kept under 75 pages per week to permit regular, concentrated work on writing. Common sense must dictate how to apply this rule of thumb: some readings are difficult and a very few pages a week suffice; some novels, in big print, can be assigned in larger chunks. In every case, readings should serve the writing. To this end, readings, while intellectually demanding, stimulating, and providing the basis for coherent inquiry, should be far fewer than in a normal introductory course in the discipline. Readings may provide models for students of good writing or of various kinds of writing in your discipline.
  5. All students meet in at least two individual conferences with the instructor. Such conferences provide a necessary supplement to in-class work on writing. They also help students learn how to engage in Cornell’s intellectual community.

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