Undergraduate Council Meeting
February 29, 2008

Attendance: Joseph Antonelli, Michael Barnhart, Brian Colle, Cynthia Dietz, Arlene Feldman, Sarah Fuller, Rick Gatteau, Joe Mitchell, Cheryl Hamilton, Beverly Rivera, Donna Di Donato

Review of Minutes
Minutes of the previous two meetings were approved with minor corrections.

Discussion of Skill 4
Joe Mitchell had proposed that in order to remain in good standing, students must satisfy Skill 4 by the end of their sophomore year (4th semester); transfer students must satisfy Skill 4 by the end of their first year (2nd semester) of study at Stony Brook.  Scott Sutherland suggested that this could be implemented by enforcing a registration block on students who didn't have a schedule that would satisfy this in time.  Discussion followed about whether we should do this for all four skills.  It was suggested that it was important to determine whether such a change would actually help students or merely act as a punitive measure.  Mike pointed out that Skill 4 is fundamentally different from the other Skills, in that its existence was a political patch because SUNY wouldn't accept DEC K in many cases.  Donna pointed out that failure to satisfy Skill 3 is one of the top reasons for students requesting a waiver of graduation requirements; students who start work on the skills early don't run into this problem.  Discussion of the number of seats in HIS 103/104 followed.  It was decided to table this discussion until next time, when we hope to have some data to better determine how many students this is an issue for.

Changes to Degree Requirement Section of Bulletin
Kane Gillespie and Joe Antonelli had revised the degree requirement section to include suggestions made by the committee concerning the description of the DEC and Skills.  The changes were approved.

Discussion with Dean Staros regarding writing program
Dean Staros has been concerned that we miss out on ensuring that transfers have appropriate writing skills, since many of them get equivalency for WRT102, although they may or may not have a reasonable level of skill in writing.  There is also concern about the upper division writing requirement.  Enforcement of this varies widely by major; he'd like to see a version of this requirement with some teeth.

A new director of the writing program has been hired: Gene Hammond, former director of the freshman writing program in Maryland.  Dean Staros has high hopes for success with the new director; the current program has been in flux for the last 4 years.

Sarah Fuller prepared a list of questions/concerns regarding the program.  She gave a copy to Dean Staros, and it is attached at the end of these notes.  The first point she raised was that there is a real discrepancy between what faculty expect students to be able to do and what is actually taught in the writing courses.  Dean Staros replied that this may be related to the fact that the current courses focus more on rhetoric than on the mechanics of writing.
Sarah commented that the difference between colloquial speech and formal writing is often lost on many students.  There is also an issue regarding ESL students: while the ESL instructors use strategies that are very useful when teaching such students, the instructors of WRT101 are often unaware of these techniques. There are also questions regarding the placement process.

Dean Staros:  There is pressure to do the placement prior to orientation.  Next year, we will increasingly rely on standardized tests such as the SAT, and only use our own exam for the middle group.  Students with high or low SAT scores can be properly placed based on these alone.

Because ESL focuses on teaching TESOL teachers, WRT101 has become more remedial.  We should be focusing more on WRT102 (students who already have skill 1 satisfied), and put more resources into supporting upper-division writing.   This means we need more resources.

Sarah:  What good is discussing such matters if we can't get the resources to make it happen?

Dean Staros: The provost has been onboard for the hiring of the new director.  It should help that the new director has a pre-existing relationship with the president of the university.

There already exist (at other universities) effective programs that address upper division writing.  These could be implemented with our resources.    The UGC should ensure that the provost knows we think this issue is a priority.  However, capturing every student will take a significant investment of resources.

Cynthia:  Currently, there is no assessment at the end of WRT102.

Dean Staros: We did do such an assessment two years ago.  The results were somewhat disappointing; however the measurement tool didn't reflect what was being taught, and so was perhaps not the best measurement.  The assessment should be restructured and redone.   He is hopeful that with new leadership and some more tenure/tenure-track faculty in the writing program (there are currently ZERO such faculty in the program) that there will be major improvements.  It helps that the new director is ambitious and energetic.

Sarah: how do we compare to other schools?
Dean Staros: Stanford just made a $50 million/year investment into their program; they now have writing for every student at every level.  We obviously can't do this, Stanford is both smaller and richer. Stony Brook’s budget for Arts and Sciences alone is about $60 million.

We must, however, reverse the trend of dropping student/faculty ratios.  Currently, we have a ratio of about 23 students to each FTE (the commonly quoted number is 16-1, but this includes nonteaching faculty, the medical school, and so on).  The ratio of students to tenured/tenure-track faculty is about 30-1.

Arts and Sciences has seen about ¾ of the growth in enrollments, with an increase of about 1850 student FTE in the last few years, but no budgetary increase.  The new provost is aware of this issue, but these changes take time.  He is very interested in fixing this.

To really implement a program addressing writing in the upper-division courses, each department would need an additional line (or more).

Sarah: We have seniors who can't identify that a sentence has no subject.  This is a problem.

Donna: What would you say the top three priorities are for the writing program?

Dean Staros: The top 2 are

  1. Restructure the lower division program to be an effective single course (WRT102) taken by most students, with WRT101 as a remedial course taken only by a small number of students.  Some years ago, about 70% of incoming students took only WRT102; later about 70% took both courses.  We now compromise by sending the upper half of the freshman class to WRT102, but this is still a problem.
  2. Address the upper division writing needs, either with a 300-level writing course for broad disciplines (eg, writing in the social sciences, writing in the natural sciences, writing in the arts, etc.), or have a program to teach faculty in each of the departments to do this within their majors.

Because of the lack of a true director of the writing program for the last four years, the program has lost focus.

Sarah suggested a campaign to change the perception of the importance of writing within the general curriculum might help.  Perhaps this could be done through the undergraduate colleges.

Dean Staros:  There has been past discussion regarding themes in the 102 courses based on undergraduate colleges.
There is a hunger for change, but we shouldn't be too voracious.
The writing advisory board has become moribund in the last several years.  Dean Staros hopes to resurrect it.  There is currently no tenure committee, since there are no tenure-track faculty at present.  Of course, this is also a new priority.

The meeting was adjourned at 11:15 AM

Respectfully submitted,

Scott Sutherland


Brief Notes on Writing Program: For UG Council Meeting of 02/29/08

1.  Discrepancy between general faculty expectations (training in academic writing) and the Writing Program  idea of self-expression and ‘enjoyment’ of writing in WRI 101 and even WRI 102.
            Lack of attention to grammar, syntax, sentence structure.
            Lack of training in identifying writing errors (incomplete sentences, sentences with no subject etc.)
            ‘Self-expression’ valued over reason and critical thinking in writing, development of arguments for or against a position, training in citation protocols.

2.  Lack of ESL training for WRI instructors.  Not taught how to handle the writing problems of a large proportion of students for whom English is a second language.

3. Lack of training in genres of academic writing:
            an exam essay
            a definition or comprehensive short identification paragraph
            a clear précis of a scholarly essay
            an objective comparison of 2 or more points of view
Understanding of the difference between colloquial expression and (as one speaks) and  formal (objective) expression.

4.  Delay in taking WRI 101, 102 so students are advanced sophomores or beyond and have not satisfied the writing  requirement.

5.  Problem of the placement process and evaluation.
            Need to have a controlled environment of testing so can be sure students wrote the text without outside help.
            Need flexibility in reassigning students early in the semester if placement seems to have been wrong. (e.g. students who should be in ESL courses not  WRI 101; students who have had AP English courses).

6.  In WRI 102 especially, concentration on revision of a few (2-3) papers rather than proceeding on to new projects and challenges after  1 or 2 revisions.

7. There is no coherent philosophy of Writing Program goals that is coordinated with expectations of Skill 1. Note discrepancies among instructors about goals of the writing classes: eg some totally disregard grammatical and syntactical issues.

8. The Writing Center personnel is not always competent. Some essays praised by Writing Center staff are judged inadequate or deeply flawed by course instructors.

There is a perception among some writing instructors that the Stony Brook writing program is decidedly inferior in mission and results to the writing program they had as undergraduates at ‘peer’ institutions.

Sarah Fuller, Music Department.  The above observations stem from discussions with instructors in the Writing Program over a number of years, and from experience with students in my classes.