First-Year Writing: Critical Conversations

Director of First-Year Writing, Wendy Schor-Haim
Associate Director of First-Year Writing, Cecelia Lie-Spahn


First-Year Writing: Critical Conversations courses invite students into the vibrant scholarly life of the college. Working in small, discussion-based seminar classes over the course of one semester, we read challenging literary texts and critical scholarship, helping students to develop fundamental skills in analysis and academic writing that allow them to take their place in vitally important scholarly conversations. Students choose one of three rubrics – Legacy of the Mediterranean, Women and Culture, or The Americas – each of which explores and questions a particular literary tradition.

A “critical conversation” is a conversation about ideas. It is sophisticated and thoughtful rather than one-sided and simplistic; it’s not about finding one right answer but rather about closely analyzing all of the evidence at hand and discovering something meaningful. By communicating what you discover clearly and cogently, you add to the broader scholarly conversation. When engaged in a critical conversation with other scholars, you consider their ideas in ways that help you develop your own thinking, rather than merely agreeing or disagreeing with what others have to say. The critical reading, discussion, and academic writing skills we focus on in First-Year Writing provide a foundation that crosses disciplinary boundaries and will help you in all of your courses.


First-Year Writing Workshop (ENGL BC1204) is a four-credit course designed for students who feel they would benefit from extra preparation for the critical reading and writing that you will do at Barnard. FYW and FYW Workshop are equally rigorous -- both courses have the same critical reading and writing goals, both courses follow one of the three course rubrics, and both courses satisfy your First-Year Writing requirement. FYW Workshop, however, meets 3 days per week instead of 2; it is worth 4 credits instead of 3; and the class sizes are smaller.

Students who are interested in one of the limited number of spaces in FYW Workshop should inform the First-Year Class Dean by email (, but please be aware that placement cannot be guaranteed. You will receive an email (in your Barnard inbox) in early July letting you know if you have secured a spot.

Read about students' experiences in FYW Workshop here.

First-Year Writing and First-Year Seminar are foundational elements in a student's academic experience, giving students academic skills Barnard considers necessary for future success at the college. For this reason, as with courses students take to fulfill a major or minor requirement, understanding how a student has mastered these skills requires a more specific and nuanced assessment than a simple Pass/Fail. Therefore, students may not take either First-Year Seminar or First-Year Writing courses Pass/Fail.