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600 Words for the Planet

April 19, 2011 By Roopali Phadke, Fellow

Part one of an eight-part series on   environmental policy in conjunction with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department.    

When it comes to persuading people, a well-written and well-reasoned op-ed provides even the smallest cause with a strong voice.

That’s the point I’m trying to make with the 27 students in my current Environmental Politics & Policy course at Macalester College. In an effort to bring attention to environmental policy issues, they’ve been experimenting with the craft of op-ed writing.

Their assignment was to write a persuasive 600-800 word piece about a policy they would like to see implemented or strengthened at the regional, national or international level. These pieces were peer reviewed and revised in small groups. With the help of MN2020 staff, the best of the set, applicable to Minnesota issues, will appear here in the following days.

While social media are all the rage on college campuses today, our nation’s op-ed pages continue to serve a unique role in pushing open the democratic sphere for a diversity of public opinions. Editorial statements bring local, national and world events into focus for readers. They could also invite the author to suggest pragmatic ways for individuals to act on controversial problems.

Most college students struggle with writing their first op-ed. In fact, everything about the op-ed goes against the way we commonly teach writing on campus. While students are trained in exhaustive citation and the creation of complex theories, the op-ed is intended to present a single, clear point of view, not a thorough and objective discussion of all sides of an issue.

Producing authoritative voice without the crutch of in depth references is a great challenge. It is even harder to shed all the technical jargon that students acquire as badges of academic study. Lastly, the op-ed structure makes us state our conclusion at the very top of the page without the luxury of formulating a ten-page argument. In short, students have to be clear, concise and powerful with their language.

Despite all of these challenges, students often learn that the most difficult part of the assignment is to create a practical call to action. They are forced to ask themselves: Who is my audience and what can I really ask them to do? How can I make a personal connection with my readers who will range from a 5th grader to a senior citizen? Do I really have a solution to share? Am I even an expert? Students learn that knowing a lot about a topic is quite different from being able to induce reader action.

Yet, it is these small and large actions that matter for producing positive environmental outcomes.

The collection of op-eds being published this week by Macalester students enrolled in this class showcase the range of interests current students have in environmental politics and policy issues. These op-eds cover everything from air quality and food politics to toxins in cosmetic products. Beyond quality writing, they demonstrate strong convictions and compelling voices for practical solutions.

Our partnership with Minnesota 2020 has taken this classroom assignment to a new level. Working with MN2020 staff, this group of students has sharpened their writing skills and reckoned with the vagaries of the media cycle. They have learned that stating your case persuasively in 600 words can be far harder and more important than writing a 7,000 word research paper.

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