Beyond the First Draft

First Year Writing Awards

Anh Duc Do ’19 and Katherine DeBroeck ’19. Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

Winners announced for class of 2019 FYS writing awards

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

For his First-Year Seminar (FYS) paper, Anh Duc Do ’19 sniffed out correlations between two combustible phenomena in higher education—grade inflation and student-consumerist views. Katherine DeBroeck ’19, meanwhile, dove into Dickinson’s social history, examining correspondence between college administrators in the wake of a charged campus survey.

Both presented their findings with the same tool in hand: exceptional writing. For this, they were named winners in the Class of 2019 FYS Excellence in Writing Award.

The award recognizes students who submitted superior final papers as part of their FYS, a required course at Dickinson that provides a chance to connect with classmates with similar interests while sharpening the research and writing skills students need to be successful in college. Approximately 50 first-year students enter the contest each year.

Grade inflation by the numbers

A Vietnam native, Do is the first international student to win the award. He took Assistant Professor of Political Science Sarah Niebler’s 2015 seminar, Ouija Boards to Big Data, and became interested in the stats underlying a popular notion in American higher education—that contemporary students view themselves “as payers whose desired products are good grades and degrees,” rather than as learners in a more traditional sense. So he performed quantitative analysis on a large data set relating to average GPAs recorded from the 1920s to 2010s at a liberal-arts college he nicknamed “College X.”

“There were 100 spreadsheets, and I created graphs and tables to analyze the data,” he explained. “Finally, I found a small correlation, and so I wanted to find the cause of it.”

The result is “The Consumer-Based View in Higher Education: Inquiry about Its Existence and How it May Devalue Goals,” which Do submitted to Niebler in December. In it, he tracked the upticks in grades, decade by decade, and considered the benefits and drawbacks of a consumerist mindset. Then he set forth bold recommendations to stem the current course.

‘A Love-Hate Thing’

DeBroeck signed up for Understanding the Research Community, a FYS taught by Writing Program Director Noreen Lape. When students in that seminar visited Dickinson’s Archives & Special Collections, they were told to pick out a document to research from among the many on display.

“Most people picked up one document, but I took a whole folder,” DeBroeck said with a laugh. It was a collection of administrative memos and letters relating to women’s issues on campus during the women’s movement of the 1970s. 

In her paper, “A Love-Hate Thing: The Paradoxical Relationship Between College Administrations and On-Campus Feminism in the 1970s,” DeBroeck explored the challenges feminists faced at Dickinson and at other American colleges in 1972-73, as evidenced by those letters and memos. While administrators, including the dean of women, supported feminist-friendly acts and initiatives, she argued, their correspondence belied those gestures, and their anti-feminist attitudes ultimately co-opted the women’s movement on campus.

It was an interesting find for DeBroeck, a member of Alpha Lambda who volunteers as a psychology department research assistant, and she learned much about the U.S. women’s movement during the process. She also gained a better understanding of the college-level writing process.

“At first, I thought that I would just submit a really good first draft to the contest,” she said, “but then I learned that if you’re looking for your writing to show meaning and purpose, that’s something you just can’t do in one draft.”

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Published February 25, 2016