Ben Roth ’04 is not impressed with Mike Needham’s thoughts on the English department. Ben writes:

I can’t imagine how Mike Needham possibly feels qualified to make generalized accusations of the English department, but I was rather disgusted by his smug comments. Further, in singling out positively only Bob Bell, apparently the one English Professor for whom he doesn’t have complete disdain (or the one English professor he’s scared will read this?), he’s lumped every single one of the other thirty-some members of the department in a very personal way into the category of “bad teachers”. But I’m sure Mike has, you know, taken a class with all of them and hasn’t received the help with his writing he felt he deserved. I bet he couldn’t even name all the people he’s insulting without checking the course catalog. I can only speak of the professors of the ten English courses I’ve had, but I think Professor Tifft in particular has been done a great disservice by Mike’s comments. He makes it a point to teach writing in his classes, and he has great success. Numerous others have been helpful as well, and never has one been unreceptive when I’ve gone to them for help.

The economics to accounting, English to writing analogy, while perhaps useful as an analogy, is misleading, of course. It’s the responsibility of every department at Williams — including economics, including the hard sciences — to teach writing. Econ majors may or may not need accounting skills (I don’t know enough to weigh in there), but they, along with every other student here, certainly need to write well. And it is true that this often isn’t an explicit focus. I’ve been a writing tutor since the beginning of my sophomore year and have been a course assistant for philosophy courses since the beginning of my junior year, so I’ve seen a fair bit of student writing. I’ve seen bad papers for classes in just about every department and heard plenty of stories of professors from each offering less than ideal help with a student’s writing. Blaming the English department isn’t going to get us anywhere.

I agree with most of this. I also suspect that Needham was not trying to demonstrate “complete disdain” for the English department — although perhaps he succeeded in doing so — but was instead making a general claim.

One great advantage of public papers and public comments is that it would allow all of us to judge just how well the English department, and particular professors within it, perform this critical task. Teaching people how to write well is hard, hard work. It would be good if the College made at least some attempt to monitor, and even measure, how well it is succeeding in this task.

By the way, Professors Katie Kent and Steve Fix have assured me that this blog is required reading in the English department.


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