Looking back on Calderwood Writing Seminars



In Spring 2021, we surveyed all students who had taken a Calderwood Public Writing Seminar in the past three years, asking them to look back at their experience. Most of these students had already graduated from Wesleyan and are now alumni, so we had the chance to ask them how their experience in these seminars shaped their post-grad experience. 49 (30%) of the 165 alumni responded to the survey, and these respondents came from 15 of the 19 Calderwood Seminars we had run up to that point.


First, the Calderwood alumni most often reported that the seminars helped them make “substantial improvement” in three areas: feeling intellectually engaged and inspired (71%), being comfortable receiving feedback from others (69%), and writing clearly and effectively (67%). It’s notable that these alumni of writing seminars often felt that the seminars taught them about something other than writing! In fact, event 37% reported that the Calderwood seminar they took helped them make a substantial improvement in communicating orally.

Second, when asked to compare the efficacy of Calderwood seminars compared to other courses they took at Wesleyan, 90% reported that the Calderwood seminar they took was either “more effective” or the “most effective” than other courses in improving their ability to be comfortable receiving feedback from others. So, Calderwood seminars not only help our students get used to receiving feedback, but alumni believe they do it better than other courses at Wesleyan. This, no doubt, has to do with the extensive feedback process baked into the structure of these seminars.

Third, when asked what activities were important to their current activities (e.g. job, grad school, etc.), alumni were least likely to report “having an in-depth knowledge of the field that I majored in.” Only 45% reported this as “very important.” Instead, alumni were more likely to report that what we would recognize as classic liberal arts skills are those that are “very important” in their post-graduate lives. These include: thinking analytically and critically (82%), synthesizing and integrating ideas and information (80%), communicating well orally (73%), writing clearly and effectively (69%), and responding constructively to feedback from others (67%).

In sum, for our students, Calderwood Seminars, although marketed as writing seminars, are clearly about much more than that. For many of the students who take these seminars, they saw the seminar as an opportunity to tailor their skills for what they would be taking on after graduation. As one survey respondent put it:

Learning how to write for different audiences is an essential skill every graduating student should know how to do. As a science major, I see time and time again the failures of my field in its ability to convey knowledge to the public and even its peers. I took my Calderwood seminar so that wouldn’t happen to me and I learned so much. It was a great experience and I firmly believe every graduating senior should have taken a Calderwood. First year seminars teach us how to write academic papers but Calderwood teaches us the skills we will use after college much more often.


First, Calderwood’s are costly to run, but they have such an impact on our students. Are there small aspects of Calderwoods that we could incorporate into other classes that we teach so that the Calderwood model can be more scalable and sustainable?

Second, receiving feedback appeared to be one of the areas in which alumni were most likely to improve. How can we work on getting our students to be more comfortable receiving feedback, given that this is crucial for their subsequent career success, not to mention their personal growth?

Third, Calderwood Seminars focus on students learning to write for a public audience. Why should this particular focus be confined to one set of seminars? What would happen if we made this a small component of every course at Wesleyan?