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IN MY OPINION

The value of the op-ed as a writing assignment

Op-ed articles help students to learn the important skills of engaging and persuading a reader.

By JAMES SOUTHWORTH | FEB 13 2018

There’s something rather futile about argumentative research papers that focus on moral, political and social issues. For all their merits in developing students’ writing, research and critical thinking skills, these papers usually fail. That is, they fail in their purpose of persuading a reader. No matter how much evidence is produced, how logical the paper’s structure, and how clear and concise the writing, if readers have a different moral perspective than the writer, it’s unlikely they’ll be convinced. Why is this?

Human beings are motivated reasoners. A wealth of research by cognitive scientists and social psychologists has shown that we uncritically accept information that’s aligned with our prior beliefs, and we critically question information that contradicts our prior beliefs. If I’m vegan and I read an argumentative paper that morally justifies the eating of meat, my feathers will get ruffled and I’ll be motivated to find fault with the paper. But if I read a paper that makes the moral case for veganism, then all is peachy with the world. I’ll gloss over the paper’s problems, whereas a meat-eater will pounce on them like a cat on a mouse.

Motivated reasoning shines a light on the nature of our moral beliefs. Despite the stories we may tell ourselves, we don’t arrive at our beliefs through a rational evidence-based process. According to the empirical work of moral psychologists such as Joshua Greene, our moral beliefs are based on intuitions and feelings. As Dr. Greene writes in Moral Tribes, “The moral rationalizer feels a certain way about a moral issue and then makes up a rational-sounding justification for that feeling.” Is it any wonder why argumentative papers generally fail to persuade? They don’t penetrate our rational walls of justification, nor strike at the affective core of our beliefs.

It’s not surprising that some of the most convincing moral arguments first arouse the reader’s emotions. Think of Aldo Leopold’s classic environmentalist text, A Sand County Almanac. The book begins with poetic descriptions on the beauty of the natural world. Once Mr. Leopold has instilled in the reader a reverence for our planet, he presents his “land ethic” argument.

Martha Nussbaum, the contemporary philosopher, often uses a similar rhetorical strategy. In Creating Capabilities, she first shares the story of Vasanti – a poor woman from northwestern India who is struggling to make a better life for herself – before transitioning into her theoretical argument for political justice. In these cases, it’s the emotional framing that enables the writer to connect with the reader, and once this connection is established, the ensuing argument is much more likely to receive a fair hearing.

Op-ed articles are an ideal writing assignment to help students learn the important rhetorical skills of engaging and persuading a reader. Like an argumentative paper, a good op-ed makes an evidence-based argument, but it does more than this. Op-ed writers can share stories, anecdotes and personal experiences, and thereby connect with readers on a deeper level. By building empathy or using humour, op-ed writers can speak to readers’ hearts as well as their minds. Through this emotional engagement, a reader is better able to see matters from the writer’s perspective and, in turn, is more likely to be persuaded.

For the past few years, I’ve taught op-ed writing to thousands of undergraduate students across the arts and humanities disciplines. Instead of following the stuffy conventions of “academese,” students feel liberated by writing op-eds. They can tap into their creativity and write in a more stylistic way. Still, some faculty may be hesitant to introduce op-eds into their syllabi. After all, the op-ed doesn’t appeal exclusively to an academic audience, and isn’t appealing to a reader’s emotions an academic fallacy? These concerns reflect an archaic approach to teaching within academia. Why do we insist that undergraduate students write in the specific conventions of academic journals when so few will end up in academic jobs?

I’m not suggesting that we abandon the argumentative paper entirely. It’s a useful genre to develop key research and writing skills. But instructors could incorporate an argumentative paper into a progressive writing model that culminates in an op-ed article. Students would first write an argumentative research paper, and subsequently turn this paper into an op-ed that engages a broader readership. Instructors could then encourage those students who write strong op-eds to submit them for publication at newspapers. Rather than an end in itself, student writing would then have the opportunity to spark further public discussion.

James Southworth is a writing consultant at Wilfrid Laurier University.

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