On college campuses across Minnesota there is much discussion about how new forms of digital media are changing the way we teach and learn. What core concepts and methods are relevant to today’s tech savvy students? Which ones have become obsolete? And to what degree can tried and true lesson plans and assignments be enhanced by engagement with new media?
These issues were very much on my mind while working with students in my Environmental Politics and Policy course at Macalester College on an op-ed writing assignment. The students in my spring semester class were assigned the task of writing 600-800 words on an environmental policy they would like to see changed or implemented. A typical college essay assignment involves showing the professor that you can extensively analyze a topic. Here the goal was much different: Convince the public that an environmental issue urgently needs our attention and make your case in just over a page of prose.
A central goal of this assignment is to teach persuasive writing, something that has long been considered a fundamental skill both within academia and beyond. Whether using type-writers or iPads, the challenge of persuasive writing is the same: Develop an original argument, support it with convincing and compelling evidence, and use clear and succinct language to develop your point. And while the craft of op-ed writing has perhaps changed very little with the advent of the internet age, students in my class engage with media through every step the writing process.
One of the first challenges is simply finding a topic that is timely and relevant beyond the walls of the classroom. Students are often drawn to my class because they are concerned about a wide variety of environmental issues. In writing an op-ed, they must evaluate the current political landscape and discern which issues deserve commentary and a call to action.
Almost all their research for this assignment takes place on the internet, and I am often amazed by how quickly students can get up to speed on an issue that only weeks ago they knew little about. For an environmental politics class, this also means students are able to comment on very recent policy changes. As a professor, more and more I come to expect that students will be abreast of current news events.
Once they have found a topic, students work on developing a rough draft. In class we held a peer review session in which they gained experience giving and receiving editorial feedback. Even in this phase digital communication is fundamental to the process. While I require students to exchange hard-copies of their draft, most students opt to do their editing digitally, exchanging versions back and forth over email and or using shared Google documents.
Where media really enters the picture, however, is in the final phase of the project. While many college writing assignments quickly find their way to a recycling bin, this semester students have the opportunity to see their writing published online. In the following weeks, Minnesota 2020 will feature a selection of the best op-eds from the class. Not only will these appear on the website but they will be linked on the MN2020 twitter feed and networked with the “Environmental Monday” series. The topics include some of the most pressing and controversial environmental issues we as Minnesotans face today—future energy needs, the fate of gray wolves, the dangers of invasive species, and even the environmental impact of the proposed Vikings stadium!
Perhaps ironically, engagement with new media networks can reinforce the values of careful writing and editing that have always played a central role in college classrooms. Students in my class learn that original and well-crafted prose is more likely to make waves across the internet. Equally as important, these mediums allow the public to come into the classroom in new ways. More and more students are writing with a virtual public in mind, and with the knowledge that their ideas are only twitter post away wider spheres of debate.