Working It Out in Workshops

A white marble statue of Socrates in Athens, Greece in front of a clear blue sky.

Rhetoric strives to create active and informed citizens. (Photograph of Socrates statue courtesy of Duncan Hull on Flickr.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Writing courses rank among the most important offerings in any academic curriculum, since nearly everyone needs to know how to write clearly and cogently, no matter what field they go into. OCW has extensive course sites in academic writing, nonfiction prose, rhetoric (argumentative writing), technical writing, and even creative writing.  Countless other OCW courses from across the curriculum include a writing component to fulfill MIT’s undergraduate communication requirement.

The latest addition to this dazzling treasure chest is 21W.747 Rhetoric, taught by Steven Strang, the founder and director of MIT’s Writing and Communication Center.

Strang has been developing and fine-tuning this course for some 20 years, and this experience has given him some perspective on teaching students how to write persuasively and how to think about writing that is trying to be persuasive.

Most writing courses include a workshop or similar hands-on component where students can practice their rhetorical skills, get feedback on their work, and develop the necessary analytic skills to understand and evaluate the communications of others.

Strang has piloted many workshops over the years, and in the Instructor Insights of his This Course at MIT page, he explains how he has adjusted his approach in response to student feedback.

He uses workshops primarily to help students learn how an audience will respond to their writing—something that is very difficult for writers to imagine on their own.  Strang employs a variety of formats in his workshops— students work in pairs, in groups of three or four, and sometimes as a full class for a larger audience.

Strang himself has been receptive to his own audience, as experience has taught him to step back and let the students do most of the driving—and even the advising:

“Students in previous years asked me to not comment on their workshop papers in order to make their peers take their advice-giving more seriously. They also said not receiving comments from me on workshop versions of their papers helped them receive their peers’ advice more whole-heartedly.”

Some instructors might find this hands-off approach unsettling, but Strang’s goal is to ensure that students make the most of his class: “I tell them that every piece of writing can be made better, clearer, more coherent, more focused, etc. and it is their job as readers to help the writer find out which statements and ideas are unclear, which are superfluous, and which require more evidence.”

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