Why everyone — even CS majors — has to take PWR

May 12, 2023, 12:01 a.m.

No one at Stanford can escape writing — not even CS majors. 

Stanford undergraduates are required to participate in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR), designed to teach students academic reading and writing skills. Many students fulfill the program requirements by taking PWR 1 in their freshman year and PWR 2 in their sophomore year. While both classes feature a central writing component, PWR 2 also incorporates oral presentations.

Stanford isn’t the only university with writing-focused general education requirements. Its Ivy League peers Harvard and Yale also require that students take specific writing courses early in their undergraduate careers.

PWR faculty director Adam Banks wrote in an email to The Daily that Stanford “has always had a writing requirement for undergraduates.” According to Banks, the program was called “Freshman English” in the 1980s and early 1990s, then “Writing and Critical Thinking” in the 1990s through the early 2000s. In 2001, the Faculty Senate approved the current program name and requirements. 

The purpose of PWR is to “introduce Stanford undergraduates to analytical and research-based writing in the university in the first year and the oral presentation of research in many modalities in the second year,” Banks wrote. PWR relies on a “student-centered instructional method,” full participation and class activities to engage students, according to Banks, with courses meant to improve students’ rhetorical communication. 

Anthony Qin ’25 said he enjoyed working with his PWR professor. “I think the best thing I got out of PWR is definitely the teachers themselves,” Qin said. “They have always stayed after class, and I got to talk to them and arrange meetings with them.” 

Joelle Warden ’26 said that PWR may be difficult for some students due to the varying workload among different PWR classes.

“Across the board, [PWR] can be difficult, but again, it’s non-standardized,” she said. 

Warden said that while PWR was easier for her because she has a strong background in writing, the class still helped her develop her skills in writing stronger theses and more detailed research questions. 

Shuvia Jha ’24 said that PWR can be fun for students who enjoy writing, but that students who don’t enjoy writing might disagree. 

“I can see why people wouldn’t like it,” Jha said, adding that while there are “many ways to fulfill a writing-type requirement,” PWR takes a more structured approach. 

“Some of my friends [who] were a lot more STEM-y didn’t like it because it was a lot of work and if you’re not into that type of work, you’re just not going to enjoy it,” Jha said.

Though students may have a wide range of opinions about the program, PWR is intended to help students grow as writers. Banks wrote that the program encourages instructors to check-in which students in the middle of the quarter to receive feedback about the class structure and activities. 

“​​No matter what major a student chooses, writing is a crucial way students learn,” Banks wrote, “And no matter what careers a student decides to follow, the ability to write and speak persuasively, thoughtfully, strategically and ethically makes a huge difference in someone being able to thrive in their chosen profession.”

Judy N. Liu '26 is the Academics desk editor for News and staff writer at The Daily.

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