On the one hand, it can make scholarly work seem inconsequential. To our students, an op-ed essay has “real world” value; a college essay doesn’t appear to. On the other hand, these public-oriented assignments sometimes oversimplify public discourse, aiming for a “general reader” who is less sophisticated than a scholar. It’s not unusual to have undergraduates write for nonexperts in building up to a more complex scholarly essay. But the kind of public reader we encourage our students to try to reach (and, along the way, to become) expects rigor — even if it looks different from the kind of rigor that students are learning to recognize in a peer-reviewed scholarly article.
This piece in the Chronicle gave me more food for thought as I plan my new assignment for U.S. women’s history. The issue quoted above is at the center. I think perhaps if we think of this public writing as “translating” – much like we as scholars do when we write lectures or lessons – it might seem like a more worthwhile skill. Having students figure out how to explain meaning of a text to an unfamiliar audience, especially through feedback, seems like an important process. I think I’ll need to make sure that my students get a mix of peer comments and comments from “nonexperts.”