The Real Thing

Coke Real ThingAs I’ve said before, the best writing assignments present students with a contextualized problem — a task — that immediately gives them a role to fulfill, an audience to communicate with, and a format to follow. Role, audience, and format should reflect the types of tasks students might encounter outside of college; for example, a letter to the editor or a policy proposal that presents an evidence-based recommendation on a specific issue. The traditional research paper, with an audience of only the course instructor and a format that is not recognized outside of academia, lacks the authenticity that will lead to improvements in students’ writing.

Doctoral programs in political science typically don’t train people in how to write* or how to teach writing to others, and I’ve only recently begun to better incorporate the principles of role, audience, and format into my own teaching. Here is one example, referenced in my last post on project-based learning.

Last semester’s instructions for a project on tourism, for which a team of students wrote a report and delivered a class presentation:

Choose a location outside the USA and design an international volunteer- or eco-tourism experience in which both the participants and the host community derive long term benefit. Make sure you define “benefit” and be aware that it’s possible to have more than one. Also make sure to include a process that measures who benefits and why to determine if the program’s goals are achieved.

These instructions are okay but not great. This semester’s instructions are better:

Your team of hospitality industry consultants has been hired by Hilton Worldwide to complete a study on the feasibility of an international (meaning outside the USA) volunteer- or eco-tourism experience in which both the guests and the host community derive long term benefits. You team needs to report on the following:

♦  The best international location and type of experience for this venture, with an explanation of why the location and experience is the “best.”
♦  An explanation of the “benefits” that guests and the host community will acquire.
♦  A process that measures who benefits and why to determine if the venture’s goals are being achieved.

I have another example in which audience, purpose, and format might be even more obvious; I’ll write about that in my next post.

*one reason for the stilted jargon-laden prose of many political scientists

Links to the entire Real Thing series:

5 thoughts on “The Real Thing

  1. I would have agreed with this strategy wholeheartedly until just recently. In fact, for some years now, I have used a team approach to do research on a service learning project with a public presentation to clients at the end as the center of my research methods course.

    Now, however, I’m not so sure. The proof is in the pudding; when we get to the senior seminars, the students, used to working in teams and keeping their perspective on a single part of the projects, have proven unable to take a full research paper, even a small one, from start to finish. What it boils down to is that they don’t know how to do it because they’ve never been taught how. A senior project is supposed to be the opportunity to improve on research skills, not learn them for the first time. The resulting has been amateurish and compares unfavorably with the work done in our science departments. That stops now. This semester I’m going back to a short (8 – 10 pages) analytical paper. We’ll see how that works out in a year or so.

    1. Hi Tracy,

      You raise some important points about skill development — so important that I began typing a long reply. But I think the subject deserves a separate post of its own, so I’ll do that. I’d be very interested in hearing your personal experience with this subject, if you’d like to write up a post as a guest contributor to the blog.

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