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Why public writing matters to the world

December 7, 2021

Daniel Bessner

Daniel Bessner, associate professor of international studies and Joff Hanauer Honors Associate Professor in Western Civilization, is the director of the Calderwood Seminars in Public Writing program at the Jackson School. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, and other venues. He is the author of “Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual” (Cornell, 2018).

Bessner taught one of the first Calderwood Seminars at the UW. In spring quarter 2022, he will teach a Calderwood Seminar, “Rethinking US Foreign Policy,” in which students will write a book review, an op-ed, an analysis of a particular foreign policy problem, and a policy brief.

The Jackson School spoke with Bessner about what he thinks the Calderwood Seminar in Public Writing can offer students at the UW.

How does the Calderwood actually work?

DB: Each week, or most weeks, students will do some reading, either on a particular topic, or a reading that is an example of the type of writing they will be doing that week (such as a blog post or op-ed). Then, one group of students will each submit a piece of writing that will be edited by their peers. Students then make revisions to their piece, which is usually discussed in class. Throughout these stages, the professor is overseeing the writing and editing to sure everyone is keeping pace and improving their skills. It’s a very manageable workload and students get a great and unique sense of what it’s like to write and edit.

I’m a student. Tell me why learning public writing in a Calderwood would matter.

DB: What a Calderwood provides is the opportunity to learn the art of public communication. It gives students the tools they need to communicate with people who might not have the background or interests that they do. Unlike any other college course, the Calderwood Seminar does not have students focus on a research paper or literature review. Instead, students focused on writing in practical genres that they might actually write in during their careers. Skills learned in a Calderwood will be able to be used throughout students’ lives.

How do Calderwood Seminars differ from other Jackson School Advanced Readings courses?

DB: Whereas a normal Advance Reading course teaches someone about a specific topic, the Calderwood Seminars are designed to teach the skill of public writing. In other words, it provides a practical skill of use to future employers. Employers often have said college graduates are not great at communicating their ideas. What Calderwood does is allow students to focus on developing crucial communication skills.

I’ve never edited someone else’s work or written an opinion piece. Will that be an issue?

DB: Almost no student who enters a Calderwood has ever written a piece designed for the public or edited someone else’s work. Calderwood Seminars are designed so that students are able to learn these important skills. Furthermore, Calderwood professors are devoted to helping students develop their writing and editing abilities. From my own experience, and from everything I’ve heard, the environment of a Calderwood classroom is very friendly, and usually students develop into a close-knit and supportive community.

Question: What are challenges a student might experience learning how to write for a public audience?

DB: Writing for broader public in a nonacademic style is something most students have never done. We understand, appreciate and empathize with that. We’re here to help students learn how to write in a new register, which, ironically, is a register that they are far more likely to use throughout their lives than those they spent most of college learning.

What have your former students said about the Calderwood program?

DB: My former students have absolutely loved the program. Many have said the Calderwood was one of the best experiences that they had in college and wished that more classes were specifically designed to teach public writing.