English comp class canceled for future seniors

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With a final vote of eight to seven, the English department decided at the end of last semester to suspend the senior comprehensive project seminar, according to sources in the department.

The English department was one of the last remaining departments that still offered a comp class. After this semester, all English students must complete independent senior projects. The department made this decision in hopes of overcoming staffing, enrollment issues and underwhelming student performances.

Ten years ago, the senior project seminar began as a desire to improve the quality of senior projects, according to Professor of English Lloyd Michaels.

“Many in the English department attributed the disappointing senior projects of a decade ago to a combination of factors: they felt students procrastinated on writing, didn’t meet regularly with advisers and didn’t perform independent research successfully,” said Michaels. “After assessing the results in English 630 over the years, we didn’t get the improvement in terms measured by grades that we might have hoped for.”

Some senior projects were written in haste and were unsuccessful, leading many students to be disappointed by the projects and creating the perception that the seminar is for weaker students, according to Michaels.

Whether or not the course served the purpose of helping students write better senior projects is an ongoing debate among the faculty, but even opponents of the suspension see problems with the current comp class situation.

“We found in part that students often didn’t live up to their own expectations of what they could do, or at least what they were doing in their English classes up to that point,” said Jennifer Hellwarth, associate professor of English and last semester’s English department chair, in an e-mail. “We thought the seminar might help with these things. We are not in agreement about whether it did.”

The vote was also based on perceived problems with course enrollment and staffing.

“The department felt that if we were going to offer this course then all of us should take turns at teaching it,” said Michaels.

Some faculty members didn’t want to teach the course, he said.

The department discussed the potential difficulty of someone teaching a seminar in which students are writing comps in very different fields, according to Hellwarth.

“Staffing the course is sometimes a challenge,” she said. “Not everyone feels comfortable, pedagogically speaking, teaching that course.”

There have also been issues of both low and high enrollment, according to Michaels. The decision to discontinue the senior seminar involved practical reasons, such as planning for registration,  as much as it involved teaching.

“[There has been] uneven and unpredictable enrollment in the seminar–sometimes it has been fully [or even over-] enrolled, sometimes under-enrolled,” Hellwarth said. “Under-enrolled courses (six minimum) can, and often are, cancelled.”

Professor of English David Miller believes there is no solid evidence to support the decision to suspend the seminar.

“Enrollment for the course has been fairly robust, given that we have to get 10-15 students per class,” said Miller.

The class only drew five students last semester, which alarmed the department.

Miller feels that the problem is not the course itself, but rather the department’s ideas  regarding the course and the lack of earlier skill development among students. The department hopes to advance student learning at lower levels, rather than at the level of the senior project, focusing on developing skills like close reading, methodology and understanding of historical contexts from the start.

Such abilities will be crucial for the comp when students are working independently.

“I think that the best students can, but it will be hard to get everybody to [acquire these skills],” Miller said.

Becky Wertz, ’11, who completed an independent comp last semester, enjoyed the process but doesn’t support the decision to get rid of the English comp seminar.

“I had to figure out how to really develop my own topic,” said Wertz. “In the independent comp route, there really isn’t any structure. Figuring out how to work with less structure than I am used to was definitely a challenge.”

Michael Babeji, ’11, is sorry to see the class go. Babeji is a double major in English and psychology who completed an independent comp in psychology last semester and is currently enrolled in the final English comp course. He found his English comp class to be more grounded with regular meetings, student feedback and solid deadlines.

“I feel like this will put a lot more stress on individual professors, since they will all have to be managing even more separate students and projects now,” said Babeji in an e-mail. “I worry that maybe some students won’t be able to get as much feedback and one-on-one time, which is unbelievably helpful during the process.”