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A Verbal Commitment for the Planet

April 03, 2013 By Roopali Phadke, Fellow

It's time again for Minnesota 2020's series of  environmental policy Op-eds from Macalester College students. In the coming weeks, we'll feature articles that explore issues from food labeling to northern Minnesota mining. We hope you enjoy this collaboration with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department and its students.

What do you think is more difficult for a college student, writing a 7,000-word research paper or a 700-word assignment? It’s not a trick question. If done well, both assignments take a considerable amount of prodding through data and prose. There are luxuries and limitations to both.

It’s a question the 24 students in my Spring semester Environmental Politics & Policy course at Macalester College can now answer with personal insight. Their recent 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 will on this site over the following month.

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 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 piece. 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 detailed 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. We don’t have the luxury of ten pages of build up to our 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 persuade your readers to act. Yet, it is these small and large actions that matter for producing positive environmental outcomes.

Newspaper editors select opinion pieces for publication based on a magical combination of quality writing, timeliness, and a fresh or paradoxical viewpoint. The collection of op-eds being published 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 MN2020 has taken this classroom assignment to a new level. Working with MN2020 staff, this group of students have sharpened their writing skills and reckoned with the vagaries of the media cycle. They have learned that stating your case persuasively in 700 words can be far harder and more important than writing that 7,000 word research paper.

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