Scholars, Educators, and Students as Public Writers

Early in my career as a high school English teacher in the Deep South during the early and mid-1980s, several weeks into the new school year, a tenth grade student became so exasperated that she blurted out in class, “When are we going to do English? All we do is read and write, read and write!”

In those days, my school system had a grade 7-9 junior high, and then high school was grades 10-12. Sophomores, then, were the transition grade, but for this student, my approach to teaching English was more transition than she could handle.

She had been an “A” student in English throughout junior high, where English had been primarily grammar exercises and vocabulary tests.

This student recognized what remains true throughout my 36-year career, the current second half as a professor of education; all of my courses at their core are writing classes.

While I taught myself how to teach writing throughout my 18 years as a high school English teacher (and soon gained the trust and even respect of my students, parents, and educators for my commitment to writing), I have learned even more over the more recent 18 years, navigating teaching writing as well as writing myself as a scholar and public writer in the context of higher education.

In What Academics Misunderstand About ‘Public Writing,’ Irina Dumitrescu addresses one of the key lessons I have learned working among scholars and academics who must publish and often have to teach writing themselves: “Even as readers, however, scholars tend to misunderstand how public writing — or as the public would call it, ‘writing’ — works, what it’s for, and what makes it good.”

Another distinction I have witnessed is that in higher education, most professors are scholars who must write, and then some are writers who are also scholars/academics. These two groups approach their own writing and the teaching of writing quite differently.

Throughout my undergraduate and graduate courses, then, I include some key strategies that address some of the concerns raised by Dumitrescu about scholars but that tend to apply to K-12 educators as well as those in other fields or disciplines (see for example this graduate literacy course, this first-year writing seminar, and this upper-level writing/research course).

One fundamental strategy is requiring different writing assignments that must be submitted in multiple drafts and revised after receiving written feedback and feedback from conferences.

I tend to pair one public commentary assignment with a traditional scholarly essay including formal citation (such as APA or MLA).

These paired assignments help students consider the importance of writer decisions based on an identified audience, establishing the writer’s authority, and navigating the ethical use of evidence.

One very important point made by Dumitrescu is about writing quality between public writing and scholarship: “Academics sometimes make the mistake of thinking that their standards do not need to be particularly high when writing for the public.”

In short, public writing and scholarship should both be well written, well supported, and engaging for the intended audience; both approaches to writing are, also, mostly acts of persuasion, making a valid and compelling argument.

However, public writing and scholarship achieve those basic goals in different ways.

To emphasize those differences within the overarching guiding principles above, I provide students these strategies for their public writing:

  • Think of a public commentary as a framed argument; that framing (as opposed to thinking “introduction/conclusion” structures) includes an opening and closing (both multiple paragraphs) that are linked by key terms, a similar image, or a guiding narrative. (See Barbara Kingsolver’s opening and closing paragraphs for an example of framing.)
  • Using personal narrative or nonfiction narrative is a powerful way to engage the reader, establish writer authority, and make an abstract argument concrete.
  • Formatting, writing structure, and citation/use of evidence are all different in public writing versus academic scholarship. For example, I provide students formatting and structure models for preparing a public commentary that addresses line spacing, paragraphing, hyperlinking (instead of formal citation), etc.
  • Public writing also must be vigilant about speaking to an identified audience (not fellow scholars), which impacts diction, style, and selective use of evidence (often focusing on one representative source instead of an overview of scholarship).
  • A tenet of creative fiction writing has long been “Show, don’t tell,” and I find this to be equally as valid in non-fiction writing, especially public commentary. When an expert writer is addressing an audience without expertise, the writer should always be striving to answer this: “How does this look?” In other words, public writing needs to be vivid and concrete so that the argument and evidence are compelling. (Scholars make a writer mistake often by depending on the argument and evidence alone to be compelling, failing to write in compelling and engaging ways.)

“[M]any of the qualities that make for good public essays — clarity, conviction, style — can improve your scholarly writing too,” Dumitrescu concludes. Ultimately, Dumitrescu offers a strong argument for the power of being a public writer if you are a scholar, but as a teacher of writing, I find this argument applies essentially to all contexts of teaching writing.

Having multiple experiences navigating between public and scholarly writing is not just effective but essential for all students as well to develop a nuanced and deep understanding of the complexities of writing.