posted: February 2, 2019
tl;dr: Blogging didn’t exist at the time, but Cornell’s required Freshman Seminars prepared me well...
It’s college admissions season, when I get the opportunity to speak with applicants to my alma mater, Cornell, which still likes to have an alum do a face-to-face interview with each applicant. I enjoy it because meeting a bunch of bright, eager young students reaffirms my faith in the future of our country and humankind. We’ll figure out a way to survive, although kids today have it tougher in some respects, such as the admissions process itself. On the other hand they have the Internet now, and my generation had to get through college without it.
These interviews also cause me to look back on my own college experience. One aspect of my Cornell experience which I’ve come to appreciate more as the years have gone by is the emphasis on writing English prose. Every single undergraduate, in every single college, was required to take what was called a Freshman Seminar in each of the first two semesters. The name has since morphed and lengthened into First-Year Writing Seminars, and I’m pleased to see it is still a requirement of the Engineering College.
The seminars were taught in the College of Arts & Sciences and didn’t have to be in the English Department, although many of them were. There was a broad array of subjects to choose from, but the seminars all shared several important characteristics. They were small, typically twenty students or less; there was a three-to-five page paper (typewritten and double-spaced, back in my day) due every week; and the emphasis was not so much on the subject matter but on reviewing each other’s writings about the subject matter. The goal was to ensure that every student who graduated from Cornell had achieved a certain proficiency in writing.
There was no getting out of this requirement, as I learned the hard way. My high school had only offered three Advanced Placement (AP) courses, in Calculus, Biology, and English. I took them all, scored 5s on the AP exams, and naturally expected to reap the benefits of having done so, by earning some college credits and satisfying some requirements. Cornell, however, refused to accept a 5 on the AP English exam as evidence to place out of a Freshman Seminar. In recognition of my achievement they did, however, put me in an honors English Freshman Seminar when I got to campus, with a bunch of other freshmen who were intending to major in English. I was the only engineer in the class. So instead of being able to skip out of a required class, I got thrown to the wolves.
I think the course topic was modern American short fiction; I seem to recall reading William Faulkner and a few other luminaries. Regardless, the emphasis was on writing. For those who may not know, Cornell has educated some justifiably famous authors, including E. B. White, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Pearl S. Buck, Toni Morrison, and many others. One of the best-selling writing guides and college textbooks of all-time, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, emanated from those two gentlemen and the Cornell English department. So it’s fair to say that the expectations and the competition in my first Freshman Seminar course were significantly higher than what I was used to in high school.
This message was driven home on the first day of class. The professor read off his rules for the class, one of which was: “You will not submit a paper that contains a spelling error.” One of my new classmates shyly asked, “But professor, what happens if we submit a paper that contains a spelling error?” He stared down my fellow student and said, “You didn’t hear me: you will not submit a paper that contains a spelling error.”
Message delivered, loud and clear. Now this was in the day before computers, spellcheck, autocorrect, and online search. We were taught to write our papers in longhand, perhaps do several drafts, and then type them as a final draft. The primary ways to ensure proper spelling, if you were at all unsure about a word, were to look up your proposed spelling in the dictionary, or to ask someone you trusted was a great speller, or both. We all spent a lot of time thumbing through dictionaries.
I survived the course and pulled in a B. No matter how well I thought I did on a paper, I just couldn’t ever seem to get an A. For my second Freshman Seminar I did not re-enroll in an honors English seminar. Instead I chose a seminar with the topic of science fiction, and found myself surrounded by many more fellow engineering students. My grade improved.
The Freshman Seminar program did make me into a better writer, and it built up a level of writing competency that has served me well ever since. Occasionally in my career I’ve run across really great engineers who can barely write a single grammatically correct English sentence; this can definitely be career limiting. Writing on a weekly cadence in those Freshman Seminar courses years ago is no different than the cadence I’m on now with my blog posts. Writing these posts is actually pretty easy for me; I like to think it has something to do with the regimen I was put through back in college.
p.s. If you want to know why this is “Chris’s blog” instead of “Chris’ blog”, see rule one of Strunk & White.