Wellesley Program that Teaches Students to Write for the Real World Expands to Five Top Schools

January 31, 2018
A group os students sit around a large, wooden table, talking to one another in a Calderwood Seminar.

Beginning in spring 2018, Amherst, Bard, Georgetown, Middlebury, and Wesleyan will adopt the Calderwood Seminars in Public Writing, a first-of-its-kind program developed at Wellesley by David Lindauer, the Stanford Calderwood Professor of Economics. The pilot expansion of Wellesley’s innovative program was made possible with generous support from the Calderwood Charitable Foundation.

Launched in 2013, the Calderwood Seminars teach students to translate complex arguments and professional jargon from their academic disciplines—such as economics, mathematics, and philosophy—into writing intended for broader audiences. Juniors and seniors can elect to take these seminars, which engage students in a final review of their major while fine-tuning their writing skills and preparing them for careers in their field. The program was founded on the principle that public writing is different from academic writing—and is central to life beyond college.

“The Calderwood Seminars provide meaningful opportunities that offer students a bridge between their college years and what comes next,” said Lindauer, the program’s faculty director. “They learn how to give and receive criticism; how never again to submit a first draft to anyone; and how to become more critical readers. They also tell us about the unique bond formed with other students in their seminars, often unlike any of their other courses.”

Lindauer said that the pedagogic approach of the program has proven both portable and adaptable across disciplines and faculty—and now, across institutions. Nineteen Wellesley faculty members have introduced 19 new seminars, including Ethics for Everyone, Public Writing on Film and TV, and Environmental Synthesis and Communication. About 15 percent of a graduating class takes a Calderwood Seminar.

The program has had a powerful impact on students and faculty alike. Heather Long ’04, an economics correspondent with the Washington Post, said that taking Lindauer’s Economic Journalism seminar, the course that served as an early model for future Calderwood seminars, changed her life. “It launched my career as a reporter, and, even more importantly, it taught me to use everything I learned in my economics and English degrees and apply that knowledge to real-world problems,” Long said. 

Calderwood faculty member Karen Lange, associate professor of mathematics, said the seminars complement the deep specialization that students get in advanced courses, and they teach skills that are much needed in today’s world. “There is often a disconnect between what our students are learning—the current research in math and science, for example—and what the public understands,” she said. “It has become increasingly important to be able to communicate that knowledge beyond our academic communities.” Lange said she believes that progress in almost any field requires the kinds of writing and communication skills taught in Calderwood Seminars.

Students report that the courses improve their command of knowledge within their disciplines while also sharpening their writing skills. That was true for Alexandra Beem ’18, a biology major who took the Calderwood Seminar Biology in the News. Beem said her experience made it clear that “the true mark of understanding is to be able to explain something so that it makes sense to others."