I chose to attend Oxy because I wanted a strong liberal arts education that fostered small class sizes and individualized teaching. In theory, the Cultural Studies Program (CSP) should fulfill these goals. According to Oxy’s website, the program requires first years to take two CSPs where the lectures and readings provide the focus for discussion, critical analysis and intensive writing instruction. The courses range in subject matter from Culture of Food to Debating Controversial Issues in Sexuality, taught by professors from various departments such as Philosophy, English and Chemistry. The goal of CSPs is to bring all students up to the same level in college writing in seminar classes of 16 or fewer students.
I think that it’s imperative for students in any major to be decent writers. However, when professors evaluate student writing such as the Timed Writing Exercise, requiring students to take a timed fifty-minute test on a text unrelated to the class — especially one that we were supposed to read the summer before — it contradicts the individualized nature that CSPs try to cultivate. The Timed Writing Exercise is pointless and should be eliminated; the student’s writing ability is unfairly quantified, there is a lack of transparency in the grading process and the preparation for the test takes valuable time away from the seminar.
I thought that when I got to college that standardized testing would be a thing of the past and I would be more than a number. At my New York public high school, I was required to take Regents Examinations, standardized tests given for every subject. Even in subjects like English, U.S. History and World History, teachers put a lot of pressure on their students to score the highest number they possibly could for each essay on the test. The Timed Writing Exercise is like another standardized test. It might not be the only way students are evaluated on their writing ability, but it still accounts for one-third of a student’s cumulative writing evaluation.
When students complete the Timed Writing Exercise, there is no way to know who’s grading the piece or what they’ll expect. Most professors provide a rubric for class papers, and if they don’t, students are able to ask the professor what they want in terms of content and format. At the end of each semester, CSP professors evaluate their students on a six-point scale. First years have some idea of what they are going to get from the grades they receive on papers. In addition to the grade, the constructive feedback helps improve their writing. For the Timed Writing Exercise, there was no way for my class to access any rubric for what separated passing grade versus a failing grade on the six-point scale. The only thing we received was a Timed Writing Information preparation worksheet a week or so before the exam. The responsibility then falls on the professors to deviate from their own curriculum in order to accommodate for this exam and make sure their students pass.
This semester, I chose to take Race and Punishment in America because it was a topic that genuinely sparked my interest, and that’s also the reason why my professor chose to teach the class. Instead of talking about the writings of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, my professor would have to stop the discussion short in order to answer questions about the exam. If one of the goals of the CSP is to focus on discussion, it’s aggravating that the Timed Writing Exam takes away from that.
People come to Oxy with different levels of writing experience. I believe that it’s the job of the professor to grade the student on a more individual basis. The only way that students will be able to improve their writing is to apply the feedback they get throughout the editing process to future papers. The Timed Writing Exam glosses over the entire editing process because it is a rough draft. It’s nearly impossible that any student can write a good paper in 50 minutes. Especially for those with testing anxiety, the Timed Writing Exercise is a source of unnecessary stress. Instead of students taking the exam, there should be more time in the class dedicated to workshopping papers.
This is not the first time someone at The Occidental has critiqued the Cultural Studies Program. I say that the program as a whole has been extremely helpful. I have been lucky to receive essays of feedback on my essays with two great professors. However, it would create a better learning environment overall to eliminate the Timed Writing Exercise. Ultimately, the goal of the program is to create a personal approach to improving each student’s writing, and instead focusing on or preparing us for the Timed Writing Exam, improving the writing instruction will strengthen the program at its core.
Esmé Epstein is an undeclared first year. She can be reached at email@example.com.