The Rhetoric of Ineffectiveness: Why PWR Must Go

The Rhetoric of Ineffectiveness: Why PWR Must Go

PWR, PWR, PWR. Dreaded by all, relished by none, the tedium of Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric is legendary. Our mandatory undergraduate writing program is thinly disguised liberal claptrap with few serious academic standards. Communicative skills form the foundation of a liberal arts education and are essential to the future career of any student, irrespective of their profession.When Stanford’s Writing and Rhetoric program, designed to teach students those essential skills, is widely regarded as a joke, something needs to change.

PWR fails at its sole raison d’être — teaching academic writing skills. Couched under astonishingly broad titles like “The Rhetoric of Happiness” or “The Rhetoric of Success,” PWR classes equip students to write vague generalizations about the world and little else. Students are then told to go out and find something specific, as long as it’s tangentially related to “happiness” or “success” (or whatever their class happens to be about), to write about, with little serious instruction about how this might be done.

Given that the vast majority of Stanford classes that involve writing focus on individual sources in a concentrated field of study, it’s bizarre to us that PWR misses this entirely, going as broad as possible and eschewing the chance to show students what an actual humanities class might look like. But it’s not just about the humanities; as Walter Isaacson argues in his book The Innovators, even in tech—maybe especially in tech—the ability to collaborate and communicate effectively is decisive. In order to innovate, it’s not enough to just come up with big ideas—you also need to communicate them clearly.

Both of the authors of this piece, and many other students we talked to grinding their way through PWR, were told by their professors on multiple occasions to simply write, dive in, pick up a pen and let our hearts do the rest. While this might function as a restorative self-help exercise or therapy technique, it doesn’t even remotely resemble actual academic writing. Of course, the aforementioned vagueness of the topics offered doesn’t help here; it’s difficult to orient a tight, coherent learning experience around topics as broad as the PWR ones often are. But some consistent, rigorous source analysis would be a good start.

Many students arrive at Stanford with experience in citing sources and writing the kinds of academic papers that are expected in humanities classes. We see no reason that such students need be subjected to the existential ennui of a PWR classroom. Stanford allows students proficient in foreign languages, mathematics, and science to place into advanced classes. It should do the same for students who can form a sentence or two without consulting an app, and leave PWR for the students who think in Java. This would benefit both writers who are less experienced and might need more instruction when it comes to the basics of scholarly writing, and the more experienced writers who do not need to spend 10 weeks learning to construct a thesis.

It would be difficult to argue that every Stanford student is a highly skilled writer. Yet if you look at any one of the PWR courses’ grade distributions, you will quickly note how incredibly well Stanford students perform. A cursory glance at Carta shows you that in most of the courses over 80% of students get grades in the A range while the remaining the students get somewhere in the B range. Maybe if you completely forget to turn in two of the three assignments you’ll get a C+. PWR, then, is more an exercise in box-checking than in actual skill development. Students turn in something half-baked, get their A- from a young associate professor too terrified of a negative course review to grade it seriously, and feel vindicated that yes, they can write.

But, of course, the game would be up if PWR professors graded their students accurately. If, by the end of your 10-week class designed to teach you how to write, it turns out that you, well, still can’t, then PWR itself has failed. So PWR becomes an elaborate charade: the professors pretend to teach you, you pretend to learn, and in exchange receive a pretend grade for your troubles.

Problems of rigor (or lack thereof) aside, PWR is also beset by political problems. When freshmen are presented with their options for the courses that fulfill the PWR requirement, they read through a catalog stocked with fluffy liberal buzzwords. Courses offered this quarter include “Academic Identity/ies: Culture and Politics in Higher Education,” “Body Rhetoric East and West: Gender, Sport, Art, and Medicine,” and “Rhetoric of Social Justice: Writing about Marginalization and Oppression.” This bias also presides in the events hosted by the PWR department. On January 17th an event was organized by the Program for Writing and Speaking that discussed the meaning of being a transitional Muslim academic in a “nonwhite existence.”

Let us be clear: we are not suggesting these are bad events or bad courses. It does seem inappropriate, though, that a first year writing program has such a flagrant political agenda. If ridding ourselves of this is too much to ask, Stanford should at least offer an alternative or two that lets students examine these issues through a conservative lens. If for every 10 “Rhetoric of Social Justice” or “Rhetoric of Activism” classes, they offered one, just one, “Rhetoric of Conservatism” (gasp), we’d be happy.

Even with all of its problems, PWR might soon have a larger role in some students’ undergraduate experiences. At the most recent meeting of the the Undergraduate Senate, Academic Affairs Committee Chair Janique Lee ’20 announced plans to meet with Adam Banks, professor in the Graduate School of Education and director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR), to discuss a possible PWR minor.

Stanford has always been innovative in its academic offerings, but a PWR minor is ridiculous. PWR’s own mission aims to give students “a solid foundation in a rhetorical approach to writing and speaking and with the critical research tools necessary for success in all their academic work.” PWR only exists so students have the necessary skills to explore and delve into whichever field might be of interest to them. The establishment of a major that studies “the rhetoric of being a good writer” doesn’t seem to make much sense to us. Instead of creating a minor in PWR, the department should dedicate its resources to improving its current classes and making sure Stanford students develop the necessary skills to succeed in the rest of their courses and academic careers.

What, then, do we propose as an alternative to PWR? It is too much to ask more seasoned humanities professors to teach these classes — we know that a young Russell Berman or Sepp Gumbrecht wasn’t exactly dreaming of teaching first-year writing when he went into academia. But perhaps a few of these wise old professors could come together and design a class, more standardized and uniform than PWR, that could be taught by the young lecturers who currently comprise the PWR faculty. Such a class would be rigorous, free of the overtly political rubbish that PWR professors are liable to come up with on their own, and designed by professors who know what good academic writing is all about. We imagine it as a source-based class, wherein students analyze different texts each week focused around a certain area. Something of this kind might just turn PWR from a joke into a serious learning exercise.

But whatever it is that the faculty come up with, PWR cannot stand. On this, Stanford students can agree.

Correction: The original version of this article suggested that postdoctoral fellows and assistant professors make up part of the PWR faculty. This is not the case. The Stanford Review regrets this error.

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