Students, when asked to write the typical term paper or research paper, know that they are writing for an audience of one: their professor or TA. I have the suspcion that many students assume their professor or TA barely reads the paper, if at all: an audience of none.
On the other hand, professors and TAs often lament that some students’ writing is barely readable, even though students are often admonished to write for the general educated reader, whoever that may be.
Poor writing is to be expected when students have, or believe they have, no audience to write for. Without an audience, there are no necessary contraints to topic, tone, genre, style, method of argumentation—only the artificial constraints of the assignment. If the writing is not read, there is no motivation to write well, nor any feedback and encouragement to future efforts. There may be any number of reasons for bad writing, but how to give students a genuine audience is a problem that is at least solvable (hackable).
There are the kinds of public writing assignments that I have heard of recently:
- Michael Altman’s Religion 100 course and Brian Croxall’s Introduction to Digital Humanities course, both at Emory, have course blogs where the students are producing good posts and receiving comments from people outside the course. Of course, many classes have blogs.
- Mills Kelly’s course of the History of Human Trafficking from last year, as well as a course in environmental science at Brandeis, both produced collaborative white papers.
- In a graduate class, I was asked to write a chapter fora high school or college level textbook rather than the standard historiographical essay.
- This is not a new topic at ProfHacker: Jason writes about “Collaboration and Ownership in Student Writing,” which implies a kind of an audience for students. And Ryan has recently written about “Writing in Public (In the Classroom),” which also has an audience, though he writes that it is an “idea distinct from, though not always separate from, writing for the public.”
What all these projects share is a definite audience, whether actual in the case of the course blogs, or at least clearly imaginable in the case of the textbook chapter. It doesn’t appear to me that the genre of the assignment matters nearly as much as giving students a definite audience to write for.
Surely some of you have found a way to provide their students an audience. What kind of public writing do you assign in your courses? What successes and pitfalls have you found with them?
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