Many faculty members teaching undergraduate or graduate courses in criminology, law & society, or justice-related programs have likely experienced what for many is the bane of our existence…grading term papers. And many (I suspect) have audibly wondered, why did I assign this? MY THOUGTS EXACTLY! During a recent reflection on my course assignments, I thought long and hard about the purpose behind my punishing both myself and my students with these types of typical, but perhaps antiquated (in many ways), assignments. When I considered what I did not like about them (aside from the grading) it was the product itself that I find greatly dissatisfying. I imagine my students are equally as irked. My goals for helping students deeply engage with relevant and meaningful topics include assisting students: 1) find power and purpose in their voice and message and 2) disseminate and translate that message beyond the college classroom setting. To meet these two goals (at least for my topical courses), I regrouped and created the “op ed assignment.”
The op-ed assignment immediately meets both of the above goals and it does a whole lot more. While learning the literature is important, it mostly produces a group of research consumers who often do not learn to translate science into sense for everyday use. Additionally, traditional student argumentation is generally fairly loose and students proceed through it without much focus on efficiency, polemics, and persuasion. The op-ed project offers a solution to this problem while also presenting students with an opportunity to meet the following objectives:
- Objective 1: learn about and critically examine a topic;
- Objective 2: translate scholarly/scientific work into everyday language and use it to persuade/argue a point;
- Objective 3: engage in a national or regional conversation;
- Objective 4: improve writing and editing skills, and
- Objective 5: learn submission & publication process; publish/disseminate.
I use this assignment within both graduate (mixed level) and undergraduate courses. It is a semester-long project made up of several iterative parts.
Initial Topic Selection: Students verbally describe op-ed topic and share any preliminary thoughts. (25 points)
Annotated Bibliography: This includes a full citation for each source and a brief overview of the main point/findings from each of five sources. (50 points)
Draft 1 &2 of the Op-Ed: Full rough draft for classmate to peer-review. (50 points each)
Objectives 1, 2, 3 and 4
Peer Review Process(2x): Instructor matches student pairs for peer review. Your second draft should incorporate any/all feedback you received on draft 1, but the copy you submit for the second review should be a non-tracked copy. See full instructions for this assignment and rubric. (25 points each)
Final Draft: Your final draft will incorporate revisions from the feedback you received from both peer reviews. It will be a non-tracked copy that you will submit to a media outlet and to your instructor for a final grade. Please also include a Tweet that you could post to Twitter regarding your op-ed (280 characters or less). See https://tipbox.abcam.com/twitter-tips-for-academics-how-to-tweet-about-your-publication/ for more assistance on writing a Tweet. (100 points)
Objectives 1, 2, 3, and 4
Publication: Getting a media outlet to accept an op-ed is difficult. They receive many submissions, and only select a handful for publication. Do not be discouraged. All student op-ed WILL be published (with your permission) on your instructor’s website in a special tab for student op-eds. Additionally, your instructor will choose three op-eds to FEATURE on the website and the rest will listed in clickable links. Once published (on instructor’s website or media outlet) students can add this publication to their resume or CV and post on their social media pages.
Students begin thinking about their op-ed on the first day of the course and spend the remainder of the semester planning, drafting, editing, re-writing, and thinking about course materials.
Innovatively Meeting Goals
One innovation from the op-ed assignment involves having students read a classmate’s op-ed as a particular audience member. For the first (of two) peer-review(s), students read an op-ed as a “regular reader,” whereas for the second peer review they read it as a “media editor.” This introduces the concept of writing for your audience. It also aids the translation process and helps students focus on engaging particular audiences through their writing.
Another innovation involves two instructional video tutorials I built (with the help of an instructional designer at my university but you can do this on your own if necessary) to help students throughout the op-ed process. The first video (3 minutes) provides a narrated overview of what an op-ed is and what it is for. It also covers each of the six distinct parts of an op-ed: the hook, the set-up, the nut graph, the diagnosis, the concession, and the code/call-to-action. In the second video tutorial (3 minutes), I cover the peer review process instructing students on how to do it, and specifically, what to look for. I break the process down (to match the rubric) into four distinct parts: readability, interest, argument support, and writing. I describe each part and give the peer reviewers instructions about how to use tracked changes and comments and how to use the rubric to help the writer improve their op-ed draft for the next submission. The video discusses peer review grading according to two criteria: quality and structure. Both videos provide examples and gently guide students through the process. These videos are on the course website so that students may listen to them throughout the semester as needed.
I also curated a host of resources students may use as they develop their op-eds and work through peer reviews. There are links to all of these resources, including detailed rubrics, available on the course web page. I am happy to share these materials with anyone if you email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feedback & Satisfaction
Both graduate and undergraduate students love the assignment and overall the process works seamlessly. Students are engaged, meet deadlines, and produce wonderfully written, soundly argued op-eds. One graduate student and one undergraduate student eventually published their pieces in regional newspapers. I also “publish” ALL of the student op-eds each semester on my website so everyone feels like their work has an outlet (https://www.gmuace.org/emerging-scholar-labs/cultivating-voice/). I encourage students to place this link on their resumes so prospective employers can view a writing sample of their work.
Representative Student Comments on Learning vi a the Op-Ed Assignment
- I enjoyed reading the op–ed resources and learning how to systematically construct this particular product. I love reading op–eds. It was great getting to write one.
- Honestly, the op–ed assignment restored/rejuvenated my excitement to be a graduate student. The op–ed assignment reminded me of the power of writing and of why I am here...to make a difference
- I absolutely loved the op-ed assignment. The criminal justice system is present in everyone's life, but from talking with people who do not study the system I get the impression that very few people really know what goes on. The op-ed assignment brings an opportunity to bring attention to things that would normally escape society's notice.
- This assignment helped me channel my passion into an informative piece, but also keep prior literature at the forefront. The op–ed process made me appreciate the work we do as researchers, but also value the chances we get to inform––and persuade––those outside the "ivory tower." It was a new experience for me, and I like the chance to gain a new skill. Plus, what's not to love about possibly gaining a publication?
Representative Student Comments on the Learning via the Peer-Review Process
- Definitely! This was a low stakes opportunity to practice reviewing and to also get other peoples' eyes on my work. Sometimes certain things stick out to others that I was apt to miss. It was great.
- I really found a lot of benefit in the peer review process especially due to the diversity of the class and the knowledge that the other students in the class are able to offer. This allowed me to learn from their mistakes, learn from their style, and find my own style in the process.
- The peer–review experience helped me practice peer–reviewing. I think everyone in academia at one point or another will review an article for publication, and this was a great introduction to how to give constructive criticism. I also love receiving feedback because it makes me a better writer.
Do not fret if you have never (yourself) published an op-ed. The process is straightforward and easy for anyone to understand. It makes a great class assignment for almost any course and it may even entice you to cultivate your own voice via publishing an op-ed or two in the process. And, if you find yourself nervous about trying op-eds with your students, reach out to me, I am happy to coach you through it…anytime.
Danielle S. Rudes, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Criminology, Law and Society and the Deputy Director of the Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence (ACE!) at George Mason University. She is moving to Sam Houston State University for Fall 2022. Dr. Rudes is a qualitative researcher with over 20 years of experience working with corrections agencies. Her research intersects at the nexus of law and society, punishment, and organizational theory. She is an Associate Editor at the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment and serves on the editorial board several other journals. Dr. Rudes received the American Society of Criminology’s Teaching Award and several other awards for her research, mentoring, and teaching. She recently received the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences’ (ACJS) Ken Peak Innovations in Teaching Award (2022) for this op-ed assignment.