Cursus Scriptorum: Writing With Honors

The Scholars Online Writing Program

The Cursus Scriptorum is the Scholars Online basic writing program, devised by Dr. McMenomy and Mr. Christiansen. We have never designed a course quite like this, or in fact ever seen something like it, and as a result we are continually making adjustments to the layout. This is the third year of the Cursus and the third variation. We elected to create something totally new because neither of us really liked how writing has ever been formally taught, to us or by us. To us, the key task for a writing course is to write, again and again, learning from mistakes and practicing new skills. This has led to three highly unusual aspects of the course.

The first is that the class is ungraded. We (Dr. McM and Mr. C, to use our standard in-class abbreviations) have long held deep reservations about the classic letter-grade system. Our main problem is that students shouldn’t necessarily work for a grade, or a gold star, or a pat on the back, but for the inherent worth of the knowledge and skill in question. We have other issues with the grading system that are better explained elsewhere, but one problem specific to the Cursus is that students come to us with significantly different writing skills and needs, and so an A in the course for one student might mean something totally different than an A in the course for another. Putting it all together, we feel that the skill of learning to write is something so continual and so essential that a traditional class structure simply can’t apply, and neither can a grade. As we envision it, a student might take Cursus three years in a row. On a standard transcript that could be evidence of failure, but to us it could be evidence of dedication, continual improvement, and love of writing. In short, we want Cursus to be a class where students can enter the course at any time (indeed, we’re experimenting with year-round enrollment), learn what they need to learn, proceed at their own pace, and stay as long as they need, including over summers—all of which pretty much makes a standard grade impossible. And since we had our problems with letter grades already, this year we are making the Cursus ungraded. Logistically, it will show up on a transcript as a Pass/Fail course. Accountability within the course is handled in another way (see below).

The second odd aspect of the Cursus is that it is entirely individualized, for many of the reasons given above. Moreover, the class is quite elastic, covering topics from the basics of punctuation to mastery of classic rhetoric, and ranging in level of assignment from basic drills on commas to (conceivably) preparing pieces for post-graduate-level publication. We offer such a range because sometimes even thoughtful and insightful writers can still wrestle with minor issues of mechanics and grammar. So while some students might still be grappling with how to put together paragraphs, others might be composing extended essays, and yet both students might need some extra work on semicolons. Attempting to put a diverse group of writers onto a single schedule thus doesn’t make sense; someone would always be either held up, or left behind. Therefore students write what they write, on their own time at at their own pace, and we assess their work based on where they are and what they need to work on.

The final unusual part of the course is that it’s structured roughly as a game. At this point a parent may well be saying, “No grades, and it’s built like a game? I want my child to be going to school, not summer camp.” And that’s a valid concern—but we have specific and carefully-considered reasons for the game design. First and foremost, writing can really only be learned by doing a great deal of writing. It involves continual and often quite repetitious work. That could be come sheer drudgery without instant rewards and feedback. Hence the game aspect of the Cursus is intended to make the drudgery lighter, and the continual work less onerous. Moreover, since the course is no longer graded, the game design is the primary way that students can show off their achievement. In our efforts to improve the pedagogical content, sometimes the game aspects have been left behind, but we’ve never abandoned the concept and hope to add new game aspects as time goes on.

With all that said, the actual classwork of the course is very simple. Students start out by writing paragraphs, working on basic organization of their thoughts into topic sentences, supporting sentences, and conclusions. (If sentence construction is an issue, or if grammar is so lacking that the paragraphs are incomprehensible, there are drills to help the student at a lower level, but experience shows that starting there can be confusing and demoralizing for students who already have a decent grasp of such material.) Once basic paragraph organization is mastered, students move on to essays. In both essays and paragraphs, students start with a strict form of the pattern (a five-sentence paragraph, a five-paragraph essay) to show they know the basics, and then move on to forms with greater flexibility. Once they are writing at the essay level, they simply continue to write more; classwork beyond that is generally unchanging. However, their focus changes with their skill level, as new aspects of writing are added. Mastered skills move into the background, though they are not forgotten, and if a student starts slacking on that aspect of writing, it will show up in their feedback and they may eventually be moved back a level, temporarily, until they recover in that area.

The links below lead you to further information.

The basic game plan

Sample essay topics Note that many students may come up with topics of their own, as well, and topics from other classes can be used, with the teacher’s permission.)

A sample assignment report, with explanations. Comments in parentheses and italics are inserted here to explain each part, and don’t show up on normal reports.