Teaching Students to Be Public Intellectuals

Faculty members aren’t the only ones whose writing for a mass audience needs work

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

June 29, 2016

Everywhere we turn lately, we hear calls for academics to write for venues, and in a style, that can reach a broad audience. Picking up on Nicholas Kristof’s 2014 exhortation ("Professors, We Need You!"), Karlyn Crowley of St. Norbert College recently hailed the new "crossover scholarship." Emerging platforms like JSTOR Daily and The Conversation publish nothing but. A recent article in The Chronicle on crossover scholarship even implored, "Professor, Your Writing Could Use Some Help," and proposed a night class for those hoping to venture beyond the ivory tower.

Naomi Wolf and Sacha Kopp are teaching one such class. Last fall they started a program at Stony Brook University, a State University of New York campus, called "The Public Intellectual." In a four-session workshop, they "train faculty members and graduate students (and even undergraduates) in the skills of … writing and speaking about their work, on mass global platforms."

We, too, are enthusiastic about all things crossover, but we don’t think undergraduates should be relegated to parentheses. As writing instructors, we see how much our students learn when they confront the same challenge of translating their academic arguments for audiences who are intellectually ambitious but expect accessible prose and an immediate sense of the argument’s relevance to their lives. The rhetorical lessons are transformative for all writers — not "even" for undergraduates, but especially for undergraduates.

Public dialogue has always been at the heart of undergraduate composition courses that focus on classical rhetoric. But scholars such as Christian Weisser and Paula Mathieu have traced students’ more direct engagement with the public to pedagogical theorists like John Dewey and Paolo Freire. Cultural studies brought "the street" into the classroom, and service learning brought the classroom to "the street."

Becoming the kind of public intellectual we want our students to aspire to be requires deep content expertise. Authority can't be earned overnight -- or expressed effectively in an all-nighter.
Since then, composition students across the country have increasingly been writing for wider audiences — creating podcasts, posting Wikipedia entries, writing proposals to college trustees. Now such efforts seem to have gone into overdrive. College Composition and Communication, flagship journal in the field of rhetoric and composition, just issued a call for papers on the "public work of composition." And the theme of next year’s Ivy Plus Writing Consortium is "writing for a public audience."

While we’re excited about this shift, we recognize reason for skepticism — namely, that incorporating public writing into a course intended to help students craft academic arguments can reinforce a binary understanding of the two. On the one hand, it can make scholarly work seem inconsequential. To our students, an op-ed essay has "real world" value; a college essay doesn’t appear to. On the other hand, these public-oriented assignments sometimes oversimplify public discourse, aiming for a "general reader" who is less sophisticated than a scholar. It’s not unusual to have undergraduates write for nonexperts in building up to a more complex scholarly essay. But the kind of public reader we encourage our students to try to reach (and, along the way, to become) expects rigor — even if it looks different from the kind of rigor that students are learning to recognize in a peer-reviewed scholarly article.

In our composition courses at Boston University, we approach this conundrum in a particular way: We emphasize the interconnected nature of public and scholarly discourses but we make the point that the scholarly work should come first. That is intuitive to academics, but not to information-saturated students who don’t always appreciate the value of expertise, or even recognize it. (That’s not surprising, given that the public forums with which they are most familiar are so often ceded to celebrities instead of experts.)

We try to help students build expertise as deeply as they can in a single semester. Rather than zipping through a series of topics and papers over 15 weeks, we ask students to devise a single research project, revisiting questions and materials just as their professors do. They spend three-quarters of the semester presenting this project in various academic genres: prospectus, annotated bibliography, abstract, and paper.

Only after that scholarly heavylifting do our students translate what they’ve learned into a form that will appeal to a public audience — say, readers of the The Atlantic or Slate.

We ask students first to choose a magazine or website and try to get into the heads of their potential readers. Then they have to make some hard decisions: How do I reframe my argument for this new audience? How do I establish authority in this kind of public venue? What word choices and sentence shapes create the conversational style demanded by, say, the Opinion Pages of The New York Times? Which details should I drop?

Moving through that sequence, students recognize that scholarly and public practices and attitudes are, at their best, deeply intertwined. One is not more "real" than the other, nor is one more important. Raising a new question is catnip for scholars and thought leaders alike. Such questions, and their answers, depend upon the hard-won insight earned through patient scholarly inquiry. Becoming the kind of public intellectual we want our students to aspire to be requires deep content expertise. Authority can’t be earned overnight — or expressed effectively in an all-nighter.

By taking undergraduates out of the parentheses, we encourage them to become more-agile readers, writers, and thinkers. And we reaffirm the value of scholarship to those who have shown up at college unsure why they are there other than to get the credential and a job.

As Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, said in a speech to prospective students that was recently published in The Washington Post, the foremost value of a liberal education is knowing "how to translate what you’ve accomplished on the campus to the world around you."

What better way for students to begin that education than by translating some of their academic work for public readers?

The recent surge of activism across college campuses demonstrates that some students are already engaging the public. We can encourage such ambitions from day one, and help teach students how to do so effectively. We agree with Kristof that more scholars should use their formidable smarts to shed light on matters of urgent public interest, but we need more than their voices. The public needs students, too.

Sarah Madsen Hardy and Marisa Milanese are lecturers in the writing program at Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences.