Teaching Writing for the Public

Last summer, I participated in a week-long Summer Seminar on the Teaching of Writing (SSTW) hosted through our campus Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning. The Seminar has continued in some ways, as our group of faculty have met twice a semester to share how we’ve been implementing some of our ideas into our classes. I recently presented some of my reflections on how my views of teaching writing have developed over the past year or so.

As I put together my thoughts, I found that many of my own ideas intersect with how I’ve been reconceptualizing my own writing and desires to do more writing for the public. Much of this reconceptualizing has been because of and acted out on this blog, and I hope to do that more in the future. So I wanted to present some of those thoughts here. My learning with colleagues through the SSTW, and in other discussions and my own work over the past year, has mainly revolved around one developing idea:

We need to reconceptualize the relationship between “academic writing” and “writing for the public.”

I’ve been thinking about and exploring this idea for a few years, in my own writing as well as teaching. As I’ve said, my blogging has played a big part in this: through my posts at Modern Medieval, the American Society of Church History’s History of Christianity Blog, and here, I’ve sought to reach wider audiences interested in the same things I am. As I’ve been writing and revising my first book, and working on various translations of medieval texts to make them more accessible (see here and here), I’ve also been considering what it might be like to write my next project not as a monograph but as a work for a more general audience. This has also led me to reflect on how and why I teach different types of writing.

Writing is one of the most valuable skills we teach our students, and while this also occurs in other departments and courses, this type of work is pretty significant for English classes. I build writing into all of my courses in a variety of ways (brainstorming, shorter and longer in-class writing, shorter and longer reading responses out of class, close readings, research-based analyses–just to name a few), and I’ve been increasingly wondering why I should be teaching essays built on critical literary analysis as the pinnacle achievement in my courses. After all, most students in my general education courses will never need to write a critical analysis of a piece of literature outside of their few liberal arts requirements. So what am I teaching them about writing?

All of this has led me to consider imaginative modes of writing for the public, for students and myself. I’ve also been part of conversations on Twitter and seen some endeavors to open up more writing by academics to the public. I was especially inspired by the series of posts that Kathleen Kennedy edited for HistoryBuff about #HistoryStuffIsCool, and I’m often impressed by the work over at History Today. What about Buzzfeed-style articles? Or some of those fascinating types of articles I read on Medium? Isn’t there room in the world for more pieces like we loved on The Toast? I want to see more like this.

My main goal over the past year has been to rethink writing in my courses, especially those that satisfy general education requirements (100-level introduction to literature courses, with about 30 students in each section). I really started playing with models of writing in the course I taught about Vikings! in fall 2016. Instead of a specific essay at the end of the semester, I asked students to produce creative projects that synthesized what they had learned about a specific exploration topic they had chosen. This was a semester-long project, with steps along the way, and I encouraged them to be imaginative. Their main objective was to make their topics accessible to a general audience, and interesting in the final form. Some of them came up with great projects–one of my favorites was an analysis of how Viking warrior culture influenced the game Dungeons & Dragons, specifically the Barbarian class.

Surely more people want to read more interesting pieces like these about topics that people might not encounter regularly. So why shouldn’t I be writing them? That’s at least one of my goals with this blog, but I want to expand my writing to do more. There’s also good reason to teach this type of writing. Students can use writing like this to think through anything they want to criticize–from the topics in my class to their own majors. So why not teach them that writing like this matters? So I’m reconstructing my pedagogy, and at the heart of it is a new approach to opening up writing to more than just academic essays.



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