Going Public: Designing Writing Assignments with Social Impact

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Skyler Wang, Sociology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2021

In a 2020 midterm evaluation form I sent to my students, I included the question: “What makes writing a course paper challenging for you?” Aside from the usual suspects such as work overload, lack of motivation, procrastination, etc., I noticed a surprising response from a couple of students that I later — through classroom discussion — found to be deeply resonant among many undergraduates: “What is the point of writing something for the sake of writing something?” Humanities and social sciences training inundates students with essays, both long and short, but often the only eyes perusing these papers are those of the author and the grader. Many students invest a tremendous amount of time and effort in these term and final papers, but beyond grades and feedback, their writing generates almost no impact in the real world.

This year, in my sociology seminar called “What Makes Us Click: Dating in the Age of Modern Romance,” I designed a writing assignment to fill this very pedagogical gap. This short, five-page assignment asks students to download and explore the features of any dating platform of their choice for at least three days and write either a recommendation brief to the respective service or an opinion editorial (op-ed) piece for a mainstream audience addressing these issues. The key motivation behind this writing assignment is to encourage students to think critically about the structural design of online dating apps and how they contribute to inequitable user experiences for different populations. Drawing from course readings, students then have to identify potential areas of improvement and develop evidence-based suggestions that app designers or product managers could utilize. Leading up to the assignment, I was transparent to my students about my intentions behind its design and coached them through various ways of addressing their writing to specific audiences. For instance, briefs targeted at dating platforms could contain more technical jargon, whereas students writing op-eds would need to include how the phenomenon they’ve observed impacts the lives of their readers and how app designers or product managers can act to ameliorate such challenges. Most importantly, because the priority here is to make their writing useful to a wider audience, students are tasked to translate complex ideas and communicate them in an accessible and easily digestible manner. In my field, this orientation to research and writing constitutes a form of “public sociology,” where scholars transcend disciplinary boundaries and academic barricades to reach those who need to hear from us the most.

Harnessing feedback from midterm evaluations and a post-assignment debrief, I learned that students not only thoroughly enjoyed this assignment, they wished more course instructors had emphasized social impact in their pedagogical design. One student mentioned that it was “refreshing” to write an essay where the goal wasn’t to simply “impress the professor” and that the premise of the assignment motivated her more because of the “real-world implications” involved. Moreover, she stated that publishing her piece as an op-ed would “actually be something [she] could put on [her] CV,” boosting her chances of getting into graduate school. Another student noted that an assignment like this extends the shelf life of one’s writing and that “it wouldn’t just be tucked away in a folder,” never to be seen again. Upon receiving feedback, many of my students showed up to office hours to discuss how to get their papers published, including ways to hone their pitches to potential publications. Several others have also sent me screenshots of positive reactions from companies that have received these suggestions. While only time will tell if these recommendations make it into the products themselves, I am confident that the assignment has inspired more students to think about the social impact of their work. Ultimately, I believe that designing assignments with the goal of “going public” not only makes our students more engaged, but it also teaches them how to apply their training to better a world hungry for their ideas and advocacy.