Get out of your head. Get into public discourse.

May 5, 2019

Get out of your head. Get into public discourse.

Prestigious Calderwood public writing seminars to be offered through UW Honors

Let’s say you’re established in your major and you’re tracking to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in anything other than journalism. You’ve probably gotten so good at demonstrating what you’ve learned by writing essays and research reports, acing tests and speaking with others in your field.

That’s a common version of academic success. But here’s the thing: society needs you to leverage all this learning and problem solving to contribute to broader cultural progress and effective public discourse. So, how do you learn to write compelling, effective communications for the public?

You practice.

The University of Washington Honors Program is excited to pilot a series of Calderwood Seminars in Public Writing to help students dig into that practice. These upper-level writing intensives have been adopted now by many East-coast colleges and universities, and UW is soon to be one of the first schools west of the Mississippi to present them.

What’s a Calderwood?

Professor David Lindauer, Stanford Calderwood Professor of Economics at Wellesley College, designed a course “to engage college seniors in the kind of thinking practicing economists employ: ‘real world’ problem-solving that requires them to communicate with government officials, business leaders and the broader public who often have little understanding of how the economy operates.”

In that course, he paired students as writers and editors on assignments including news stories on government reports and journal articles, Op-Eds, book reviews and interviews of economists. Students quickly learned to build a case for their ideas using language and formats that could reach decision makers in government, business, and even their parents. This forced seasoned upperclass students to approach their field with fresh eyes, to recognize what they’ve learned and to express their ideas in ways that others, without similar training, could understand.

Lindauer’s pedagogy appealed to a major philanthropist (and Wellesley donor), the late Stanford Calderwood, whose charitable foundation first established a professorship in the Department of Economics in 1999, with a mandate to teach writing skills to student economists at Wellesley. The foundation went on to support expansion of Lindauer’s public writing seminar model to serve students in a wide varieties of disciplines, officially establishing the Calderwood Seminars in Public Writing Program at Wellesley in 2013.

Lindauer, as Faculty Director, recently helped to usher in Calderwood seminars at a cohort of East Coast liberal arts colleges and universities: Amherst, Bard, Georgetown, Middlebury, Smith and Wesleyan. “There are 28 seminars being taught this year across six institutions,” he explained. “With each expansion, we also see tremendous innovation from faculty as they adapt the model to their discipline.”

Lindauer is enthusiastic about the impact Calderwood seminars will have starting next year through the Honors communities at four additional schools: Clark, UT Austin, City University of New York and the University of Washington.

Students who have completed a Calderwood seminar often cite it as the best course they took in college. The impact on course instructors was an unexpected boon.

“I knew the Calderwood model would benefit students, without question,” Lindauer continued, “but I did not appreciate its contribution in terms of faculty renewal. So many of our instructors have cited this as the best teaching experience of their careers.”

Looking through a long list of faculty testimonials, it is clear that engaging students in this rigorous, active process has restored a level of enthusiasm and excitement to their craft and offered new insight in how to teach other courses.

Lindauer hopes that, as the pilot programs conclude, faculty at partner institutions will continue including these courses in their portfolios and these public writing seminars will take hold. “Students need them,” he concluded. “Society needs them.”

Reflective, meaningful storytelling

Honors Program Associate Director (and Acting Director), Julie Villegas, was instrumental in the campaign to bring Calderwood seminars to the University of Washington. “Honors already brings undergraduates together in upper-level conversation and reflection both within and outside of their majors. The energy we spend on this partnership with the Calderwood Foundation is natural to our role in the University: to be a hub of curricular innovation and to graduate engaged global citizens.”

Villegas builds Honors’ interdisciplinary curriculum from scratch each year by developing and fielding proposals from hundreds of instructors based in departments across campus. She also teaches the Honors 496 capstone course, where upperclassmen finalize online learning portfolios they have kept since entering the Interdisciplinary Honors program (usually in their first quarter at UW). When Lindauer reached out to her about launching Calderwood seminars, she says she “saw an instant connection” between Honors methods and those Lindauer is working to establish beyond Wellesley.

Students preparing to graduate with Interdisciplinary Honors reflect upon the intersection of formal coursework and experiential learning by collaborating, articulating, refining and showcasing the Honors portfolio to a community of peers, mentors, family and alumni. Students engage in studio-based practices, including hands-on writing activities, analyses of artifacts, a peer review process and discussion with off-campus speakers. Villegas’ experience designing and leading this required course made it easy for her to imagine how Calderwood seminars could function and how beneficial it would be from students across the sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities.

Collaborative, experiential learning

The first round of UW-based Calderwood seminars are being carefully constructed by a variety of dynamic faculty from departments across campus, with lots of support from Lindauer and Villegas. The Calderwood grant relieves departments of the cost burden required to pilot approximately a dozen seminars over three years and will help students from a diverse swath of majors develop and strengthen their professional authorial voices in a fast-paced, quarter-long writing intensive environment. The instructors are supported through curricular development and many are currently working on the particulars of their discipline-specific offerings.

“How the latest scientific research is communicated is a necessary precursor to social change,” says Michelle Koutnik, from Earth & Space Sciences, who is currently developing her Calderwood seminar: Science and Society in a Changing Climate.

Koutnik goes on: “For students, the process of explaining something in common terms is a test of their depth and breadth of understanding. The goal of this course is for students to gain experience writing in a style that speaks to society and on scientific topics that matter to society.”

Damarys Espinoza will present UW’s first Calderwood seminar, Writing Food and Politics. Espinoza says the same is true in her field of anthropology. “We need to engage with communities in critical dialogues about issues that matter. Very often, writing that is produced within academic institutions doesn’t necessarily resonate with the broader public. Public writing classes create opportunities to bridge this divide.”

Between Fall 2019 and Spring 2022 UW Honors will present Calderwood seminars with a wide range of faculty partners from departments across campus.

Approved Calderwood seminars as of May, 2019

Fall 2019

Damarys Espinoza, Anthropology; Writing Food and Politics

Winter 2020

James Clauss, Classics; Shift Happens: Moving the Humanistic Conversation in the Classics from the Classroom to the Public Arena

Mark Ellis, Geography; Census 2020: Communicating Population Data

Spring 2020

Michelle Koutnik, Earth & Space Sciences; Science & Society in a Changing Climate

Joel Walker, History and Near East Language & Civilization; Interpreting the Middle East

All UW undergrads (whether enrolled in Honors or not) are encouraged to check with an adviser or with Dr. Villegas about future Calderwood seminars in their areas of interest.

Learn more about teaching awards and curricular innovations from UW Honors.