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Speeches & Media

Writing for Change

An innovative program is helping students think about what they want their words to accomplish.

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Fall 2021

Smith has a long tradition of valuing writing. In fact, the only academic requirement for students, beyond completing a major, is taking a specially designated writing-intensive course. Over the past two years, we have advanced our commitment to students’ writing capacities through a new program—Writing and Public Discourse—that is distinctly and powerfully Smith.

Our approach—supported by generous grant funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Davis Educational Foundation, and the Calderwood Foundation—centers on a simple premise: Writing in the academy should be accessible beyond the academy. While many Smithies go on to careers in academia and research, others choose paths such as medicine, law, teaching, business, journalism, activism, and social change, to name just a few. The ability to marshal language effectively and persuasively matters in every profession. 

Beyond preparing students for careers, we are educating them for citizenship, for using their voices to address society’s challenges. By helping students translate academic writing and knowledge to broader audiences, we prime them to communicate effectively in the public sphere. We prepare them to effect the change that they want to see in the world.

Writing and Public Discourse is not a single course but a range of writing-intensive opportunities across a student’s four years. Its principles are increasingly embedded in courses, capstone seminars, majors, and our co-curricular centers, such as the Wurtele Center for Leadership. And its techniques take many forms. Examples of this work abound across campus.

For a biological sciences course, students were tasked with communicating the science of COVID-19 in publicly accessible ways. One student created a website targeted to the elderly and their caregivers; another wrote a policy brief about the role of environmental racism in the pandemic. Students in an Italian course created a blog in which they reflected on the process of language learning. Students in religion created a podcast about the ordination of women in different spiritual traditions. And students across the college participated in the Wurtele Center’s new Amplify program, in which submissions of op-eds, visual essays, zines, and other examples of public voice were eligible for prizes of up to $1,000.

In some cases, student writing is already out in the world and shaping public discourse. Ms. magazine recently published an essay by Isabel Fields ’21 about the importance of the Paycheck Fairness Act for women. The Daily Hampshire Gazette published a guest column by Anna Dragunas ’21 about the dangers of anti-trans legislation on transgender youth. Reuters recently ran an op-ed on tax reforms in Colombia by Veronica Uribe-Kessler ’22 for a course in economic development.

Students use their voices to expand opportunity, decry inequity, and change the world.

As we teach writing through the lens of public discourse, we also make space for students to reflect on why they write, who they are writing for, and what they hope their words will accomplish. In the current climate of public discourse, in which hype and vitriol often crowd out nuance and evidence, it’s vital to understand not only one’s motivations for taking a public stand but how to manage the ensuing pushback. The program’s holistic approach resonates with students. In evaluating a writing-focused senior seminar, one student wrote: “I feel as if this course filled a gap in my skill set and education that I didn’t quite realize I had: how to articulate—for myself, but then for a larger audience—exactly why my thoughts and ideas are important.”

Learning to write—and to think via writing—is an ongoing practice, one perfectly aligned with Smith’s mission. I am proud that we continue to support students in using their voices to do what so many of you are already doing—expanding opportunity, decrying inequity, and changing the world.