BY GLENN MICHAEL GORDON
Students in University Writing (UW) put a lot of effort and passion into the four essays they write over the course of the semester. They read sophisticated essays and deeply consider the authors’ ideas, pound out a first essay draft full of ideas of their own, revise it several times, workshop it with their peers, and finally, turn in a polished piece. Throughout the process, they hone an argument about a topic that is important—and, not infrequently befuddling—not only to them, but to the larger world. So why should the audience of their final essays be limited to their instructors?
This is just one of the questions that led the directors of University Writing to encourage instructors to assign the op-ed as their fourth and final essay. “We asked ourselves: What is the last thing that students should write in the course?” recalls Dr. Nicole B. Wallack, the director of the Undergraduate Writing Program. “We knew that the final assignment needed to have particular qualities: that it would require students to reflect on what they had learned in University Writing and that it would help them bridge to the world beyond UW, whether that was their other classes, their professional lives, or the larger world. The editorial felt like a good choice for accomplishing this, as it is a genre of essay that academics and researchers often turn to when they want to present their ideas to a new, different, and perhaps, wider audience.”
Students Sverre Melkstavik and Tabitha Cohen published the op-eds they wrote in their University Writing classes.
Students Tabitha Cohen and Sverre Melkstavik certainly succeeded in finding a new, different, and wider audience for their writing when they published the op-eds they wrote in their UW classes in mainstream publications. Cohen, a Columbia College student, published the op-ed she wrote about recidivism of prison inmates in her hometown newspaper, the South Florida Sun Sentinel. It was based on the research essay she wrote for UW after feeling inspired by a lecture she attended at Columbia by Max Krenner, the founder of Bard Prison Initiative. “Writing my research essay certainly allowed me to find answers to many of the questions and concerns I had had after listening to Mr. Krenner speak. However, it also opened up even more questions about the topic for me, and made me realize just how complicated and controversial this issue really is.”
While a 3000-word research essay allowed Cohen to consider several facets of the complicated issue, when she attempted to write her op-ed as a “condensed version” of her research essay, she soon realized that she couldn’t responsibly cover the same material in the comparatively brief 700 words most newspapers allot to op-eds. Melkstavik, a General Studies student who is from Norway and published his op-ed about last summer’s violent attack in his country in the newsletter Norwegian American Weekly, initially had the same problem. “The biggest challenge with writing a 650-word op-ed based on a 3000-word research paper was finding an angle that worked.” It was particularly difficult, says Melkstavik, “because I lost a friend in the attack, and felt the need to say something.”
For both student writers, the challenge to take a public stand on issues that are deeply important to them offered an opportunity for learning how to shape and shift one’s previous work with new purpose. Cohen’s UW instructor, Catherine Bohannon, says her first goal when teaching the op-ed is making sure students understand that the op-ed is not a “light” piece because of its length. “The real task for the op-ed is to realize that shortening isn’t always a summary exercise, but really a combination of refining and expanding. Students usually have to pick one central point their previous essay was trying to make and restrict themselves to that point,” Bohannon explains. However, “the way they were making the point in the research essay would never work as a standalone op-ed, so they then have to expand on that point in some critical fashion.”
The key for both students was to consider what the readers of the publications they were targeting most needed to know. In other words, they needed to consider their essay’s audience, something UW students are asked to do all semester. Melkstavik’s instructor and associate director of first-year writing, Dr. Aaron Ritzenberg, explains, “From an educational standpoint, the op-ed helps students see that the writing techniques they have practiced to produce strong papers in the classroom are the same techniques they will use when they strive to write for a wider public.” Bohannon observed a raised awareness is her class. “I don’t think my students really thought as usefully and critically about audience until the op-ed assignment, primarily because they have to target a population of readers and carefully tailor their piece to that audience.” Since Cohen was writing for South Floridians, she conducted specific research into the South Florida prison system and included her findings in her op-ed. And after reading some of the recent op-eds in the Sun-Sentinel, she discovered that recent actions by the governor of Florida have made prisons a hot-button issue. Melkstavik had a breakthrough when he realized he could focus on a respected Norwegian newspaper hiring a controversial comedian to write about the tragedy, something that would garner the immediate attention of the readers of Norwegian American Weekly.
“I am especially proud of Sverre’s paper,” says Ritzenberg. In defending the comedian’s call to understand the murderer, “Sverre made an argument that he realized would likely upset many people, but he was careful to calibrate his arguments so that he would come across as thoughtful, moral, and benevolent.” Bohannon, too, applauds Cohen’s achievement of making her voice heard in her hometown, by paraphrasing the writer Amiri Baraka: “Our young people have to go back to where they came from, in one fashion or another, to be voices in a community.” That’s precisely the reason the op-ed is such a terrific send-off from University Writing. Says Ritzenberg, “When we urge our students to write for a larger community, we are taking them seriously as young intellectuals, and we are helping them craft prose in a genre that will be relevant long after the semester ends.”
Tabitha Cohen’s published op-ed on Sun Sentinal.com
Tabitha Cohen’s research essay she wrote for UW
Sverre Melkstavik’s published op-ed in Norwegian American Weekly
Sverre Melkstavik’s research essay he wrote for UW