First-Year Writing Seminar Overview

Each year, the Princeton Writing Program offers over 100 Writing Seminars of 12 students each on a wide variety of topics, from mythic traditions to immigration policy, environmental ethics, and consumer culture. Every first-year student at Princeton, without exception, is required to complete a Writing Seminar in fulfillment of the University writing requirement.

The Writing Seminars give Princeton first-year students an early opportunity to belong to a lively academic community in which members investigate a shared topic and discuss their writing together, with the aim of clarifying and deepening their thinking. Focused instruction on the writing process and the key elements of academic writing enriches and guides the Writing Seminar experience. Students learn how to frame compelling questions, position an argument within a genuine academic debate, substantiate and organize claims, purposefully integrate a wide variety of sources, and revise for greater cogency and clarity. Through an extensive collaboration with the University library, Writing Seminar students also learn to use databases to locate and evaluate sources. Writing Seminars are multidisciplinary in nature to emphasize transferable reading, writing, and research skills.

Writing Seminar faculty number 35-40 each year and include post-doctoral lecturers recruited in a national search to teach in the Program, as well as Princeton graduate students in the final stage of dissertation-writing, departmental faculty and researchers, and qualified administrative partners. For lecturers, the course load is typically two seminars per term, usually on the same topic; for graduate student fellows, it’s one seminar per term; for all others, it’s one seminar per academic year. The teaching staff is among the most disciplinarily diverse of any program in the country. Each seminar is strongly writing-centered and revolves around a topic that can be explored through a wide range of evidence, methodologies, and scholarship. The instructor guides students in that exploration to develop motivated research questions and respond with persuasive, original analysis. In this way, students are given a compelling occasion to practice the strategies and techniques of college-level argument.

Writing Seminar faculty design their own Writing Seminars according to shared curricular guidelines, summarized here:

  1. Writing Seminars meet for two 80-minute periods per week. In class, students discuss source materials and readings (often in terms of writing), receive instruction on key writing skills, and examine their own writing in draft workshops and small groups. Classes are designed to engage students as actively as possible.
  2. Faculty offer feedback on pre-drafts, as well as extensive marginal and cover comments on three drafts and final revised assignments. They also discuss drafts-in-progress with student writers in required individual, paired, and small group conferences. For experienced faculty, this intensive engagement with student writing outside of class time averages 20 hours per student each semester. For new faculty, the average is often significantly higher as they learn strategies for diagnosis and effective feedback.
  3. Unlike most other courses, which are organized primarily around readings, Writing Seminars are organized primarily around writing, totaling about 30 finished pages. The major assignments include (i) a short critical argument engaging 2-3 primary and theoretical texts (5-6 pp.), (ii) a more complex argument engaging diverse kinds of evidence and methodologies as the student organizes and intervenes in a scholarly conversation (7-8 pp.), and (iii) an innovative researched argument on a topic of the student’s choosing (10-12 pp.).
  4. Because the primary focus of the Writing Seminar is on the students’ own writing, course readings are limited to approximately 300 pages per term and include a variety of sources: those serving as a primary focus of analysis, as well as contextual, theoretical, and critical texts. In addition to these assigned readings and peer drafts, students read sources that they locate independently for the research essay.

Writing Program directors work closely with new faculty in the Spring and Summer to design courses that will have broad appeal to first-year students while providing opportunities for intensive engagement and exploration. Students enroll in Writing Seminars by ranking their top 8 choices; an optimization software program places students by balancing preferences and availability. Careful course design is essential to ensure that students across the different seminars share a common experience of intensive writing. Accommodating the complexity of students’ schedules requires that many Writing Seminars be scheduled in the early morning or in the evening.

All new faculty meet for an intensive week of training workshops in the second half of May, meet for an additional four days of training in August, and participate in an ongoing Pedagogy in Practice series in the Fall term. The full faculty convenes for a Fall retreat at the end of August. Faculty also participate in a range of faculty development workshops and working groups focused on honing a coherent writing pedagogy, using shared grading standards, and teaching research skills, among other things.

The directors visit classes and meet with faculty to discuss student writing (including comments and grades) and student course evaluations. All new faculty are required to submit teaching portfolios for review midway through the year. Faculty also exchange feedback and class visits throughout the year. In addition, we keep an archive of teaching materials to serve as inspiration as you develop your courses, ranging from sample syllabi and grading worksheets, to lesson plans, library exercises, and examples of student writing.