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Writing requirements may be increased for undergraduates

STANFORD -- Undergraduates would be required to take a writing- intensive course in their major field of study under a proposal endorsed by the Commission on Undergraduate Education at its meeting on Monday, April 25.

The commission also discussed a proposal to require undergraduates to demonstrate proficiency in a language besides English as a requirement for graduation, said history Professor James Sheehan, chair of the commission. Currently, students can meet the foreign language requirement by taking three years of high school foreign language. Proposed changes in the language requirements will be discussed further at the commission's next meeting, Sheehan said, along with aspects of grading, such as grade inflation and grade diversity.

Nancy Kollmann, associate professor of history, presented proposals for increasing writing requirements beyond that of Freshman English. Kollmann chairs the Subcommittee on Writing and Critical Thinking that was appointed by the dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences. The commission, named by President Gerhard Casper, generally endorsed the subcommittee's proposal, Sheehan said.

It would require students to take at least one course in their major that has been identified as writing intensive. Many students currently do take such a course but it is not a requirement.

"The basic pedagogical point is that writing is a skill that develops," Sheehan said, "and if you don't use it, it atrophies. Moreover, there is no abstract quality called writing, but writing about a particular subject for a particular purpose."

A subcommittee of the commission that reviewed the language requirement recommended a menu of ways to increase foreign language proficiency, Sheehan said. Proposals include requiring students to take a proficiency exam if they do not wish to continue foreign language study at Stanford. They might be able to meet the requirement by taking foreign language classes off campus or by spending time in foreign countries.

The standard for proficiency would probably vary from language to language but would require proficiency in writing, reading, speaking and listening. Details are yet to be worked out, Sheehan said, but the subcommittee felt that Stanford is "at the very bottom of schools we like to compare ourselves with in what we require in language." Colleges typically require a year of language instruction at the college level or demonstrated proficiency, rather than simply high school credits.

"The most important goal that the subcommittee emphasized, and I think they are right to do so, is to make not so much language study but language use more important" for a Stanford degree, Sheehan said.



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