Written by Luke Bernstein
As any Stern student knows, the First-Year writing sequence is an invaluable and difficult part of the curriculum, but the rationale behind the progression can be confusing and mysterious. For those unfamiliar, first-year business students are required to take two writing courses: Business and Society and either Writing the Essay or Commerce and Culture. To learn more about the course as well as the rationale for bringing the writing curriculum under the business umbrella, I had the chance to speak with Course Director Professor Robert Wosnitzer and the Dean of the Stern Undergraduate College Robert Whitelaw to gain insight into the world of Commerce and Culture.
Dean Whitelaw describes a two-fold purpose behind creating the course. He presents the idea that “if students are learning how to write, how to discuss, how to argue, why not do this in a context of questions more applicable to the things a Stern student will be doing.” This works well with the idea “because students take a lot of non-Stern courses, particularly in the first couple of years, one of the issues we always had was with community building.” Therefore, Dean Whitelaw feels “the more courses students get exposed to earlier that are in Stern, the easier it is to bring them into the community, to help them understand what it means to be a Stern student.” He believes it is important to capitalize on the advantages a four-year business school provides as it allows the college to use a student’s formative years to build a strong bond within the student body. Through Commerce and Culture and Business and Society, Stern aims to establish a strong foundation of critical and analytical skills while building on the community engagements fostered through CLP and other co-curricular programs.
Commerce and Culture started as a small course, with only 10 sections each serving around 20 students. Around 18 months ago, however, the Stern’s leadership team decided they wanted to move all first-year writing instruction “in house”. CAS and the Provost’s office approved and “understood the academic motivation” Dean Whitelaw illuminates, but asked for a staggered transition instead of an immediate switch. Since then, Commerce and Culture has grown from 10 in 2019 to 26 in 2020.
Achieving the program goals come in two distinct ways, both through the input and critique of the professor and guidance from the Teaching Fellow. Professor Wosnitzer strays away from the word difficult but does acknowledge it is “never really that clear what comments will actually help students”. He presents the analogy of teaching writing to teaching swimming. It is not something that can be taught through lectures and reading a textbook but must be honed through repetition, practice, and correction. He quotes his colleague, Professor Newell, “If you can’t write it, you can’t think it.”. Professor Wosnitzer hopes his students will leave “understanding the difference between summary and analysis” in their writing.
In pursuit of achieving this goal, each professor for Commerce and Culture works with a Teaching Fellow to assist students in producing high-quality work. But this was not always the case. When C&C originated, Teaching Fellows served more as discussion leads and as a sounding board for students’ questions about the texts. Their role then transitioned to be more hands on because they were able to connect with students on a more personal level. Professor Wosnitzer notes that TFs have the unique ability to recalibrate a student’s perspective to help them gently find where they “fit in socially, intellectually, and culturally”. The role’s defining characteristic, however, is that “all of the TF’s struggled in their own way and were able to perform in an exceptional manner”. TF’s such as Junior Veena Murali underscore the importance of finding ways to creatively approach the topic and content and emphasizes her and all other Fellows’ willingness to help any student succeed in C&C.
However, Dean Whitelaw and his team still have more they wish to achieve out of the Commerce and Culture program. In an ideal world, he hopes to bring C&C into the Social Impact Core, making the program into a five-course sequence as all of these courses “touch on related ideas that are arguably increasingly important. He feels that these ideas must be discussed “in our complex, modern, globalized world” and that “if we have more territory to touch on these issues, and if we can integrate them better to each other, then we can do a better job.”
While discussing this text-based course, Dean Whitelaw was willing to share some of his own favorite reading material. For nonfiction, he finds himself mostly reading the work of his colleagues, including finance Professor Thomas Philippon’s The Great Reversal”, management instructor Dolly Chug’s The Great Reversal, marketing faculty member Adam Alter’s Drunk Tank Pink which discusses “psychology and marketing”, and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind” from the Business and Society Program. On the fictional side, Dean Whitelaw is currently re-reading John le Carré’s George Smiley series and highly recommends the novels for anyone interested in spy centered literature and he particularly enjoys the British feeling acquired from the texts.
Just like any course, Commerce and Culture is a complicated and well-reasoned endeavor and understanding the motivations behind the class requires investigation. It is not merely a continuation of high school English classes, but it attempts to open a student’s mind to the complex issues they will face over the next three and a half years at NYU while instilling the analytical and technical tools to effectively convey thoughts on these issues. If Stern is requiring students to spend two semesters learning and honing these skills, then it is most certainly an opportunity not to be squandered, but to be yearned for and employed to the fullest extent.