Writing intensive General Education (GE) classes in Cal Poly’s College of Liberal Arts (CLA) are, in many cases, not requiring students to write a single word.
Implemented in 2001 to produce “proficient writers,” writing intensive classes require a minimum of 3,000 written words constituting at least 50 percent of the student’s grade. They are currently located in GE areas A1, A2, A3, C1, C2, C4 and D5.
However, soon after the creation of these classes, budget limitations resulted in some writing intensive classes morphing into large lecture courses of at least 120 students and requiring no written work. These sections have increased in recent years.
In the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 academic years, 31 and 38 writing intensive classes, respectively, were taught in large lecture format.
Philosophy sophomore Gabriela Lamond took a GE area C2 Philosophical Classics course to fulfill a GE requirement. She was placed in a large lecture section.
“We didn’t have to write anything, and people didn’t have to come to class,” Lamond said. “I had a couple friends in the small lectures, and they were required to go to class and had a participation grade and had to complete a writing intensive class of at least 3,000 words.”
Philosophical Classics, specifically, was hit hardest by this trend. There are 19 GE area C2 courses offered as large lectures in the current academic year.
Associate Dean of CLA Debra Valencia-Laver, who is responsible for overseeing the college’s curriculum, explained the abundance of large lecture philosophy classes.
“Philosophy generously, and perhaps too generously, went to large size classes in area C2 to help meet demand and to deal with the budget,” Valencia-Laver said.
Due to that decision, the philosophy department has received considerable scrutiny.
A 2005-2006 external review of the philosophy department, authored by philosophy professors Scott Soames of the University of Southern California and Brooke Moore of California State University, Chico, described the 120 student sections of Philosophical Classics as “unthinkable.”
“Classes of this size are not educationally feasible when it comes to philosophy,” according to the issued report.
Consulted by Soames and Moore for the external review, Cal Poly philosophy professor Stephen Ball is the chief critic of the large lecture writing intensive courses, as well as the whole program.
Ball, who teaches three standard writing intensive courses, authored a packet available in El Coral Bookstore that provides 25 arguments against the writing intensive program. The packet, which repeatedly refers to the large lecture sections as “cattle car courses,” said students in those classes are “receiving an inferior education for the same tuition.”
Also mentioned in the philosophy department external review is George Lewis, mathematics professor and former member of what is now the Academic Senate General Education Board. Lewis, who previously required writing in his history of math course, strongly advocates an increased focus on writing at Cal Poly.
Nevertheless, Lewis said the writing intensive program is not feasible.
“The writing intensive program is an attempt to address (writing deficiencies at Cal Poly) with inadequate resources,” Lewis said. “You have to have small classes in which people are required to write, and their writing is critiqued and analyzed by people who have expertise. But, it would be really expensive to remedy this.”
Another peculiarity of the writing intensive program is that no designation of writing intensive classes exists, or has existed, in the Cal Poly Catalog or on Plan A Student Schedule (PASS).
Amid the creation of writing intensive classes, a June 2001 email actually forewarned of this problem. GE program director at the time, John Harrington, sent an email to all CLA faculty to remind them that students would be confused about the program.
“Students will not know in advance whether the course is (writing intensive), and we have no way to include that information in the course schedule, so what you tell your students and put in your syllabus is important,” Harrington said.
A decade later, there is still no labeling of writing intensive classes in registration material, but now, at least, there is an explanation.
Valencia-Laver said the lack of a formal requirement for writing intensive classes, in contrast to U.S. Cultural Pluralism and Graduation Writing Requirement, is the reason the courses are not designated in the catalog or on PASS.
“Writing intensive in some ways is more of an ideal than actual requirement,” Valencia-Laver said. “It’s not necessarily the case that students need to take a certain number of writing intensive classes.”
CLA Dean Linda Halisky, who was involved in the creation of writing intensive classes while in her previous position as English department chair, said this confusion must be sorted out.
“If there isn’t a clear way for students to know (what they are registering for) ahead of time, then we need to do something about that,” Halisky said.