Public Writing Seminars Take Root at UW

August 13, 2021

Public Writing Seminars Take Root at UW

Redwoods looking gorgeous in the mist
Calderwoods are not trees. They are public writing seminars whose model originated at Wellesley College.

In a time when the art of (and impetus for) conversation seems to be on the wane, what is the role of a university? How are students preparing to not only bring their knowledge and questions into the world, but to share ideas in arenas and syntax that will resonate beyond academia?

This pilot partnership between the Calderwood Foundation for Public Writing, the UW Honors Program, and nearly a dozen major departments across campus is now entering its third year and has already prepared hundreds of Huskies to lead better conversations across broad audiences—to communicate beyond silos. 

The Calderwood model builds scholar competency for next level engagement outside of the academy to reach a larger population and facilitate generative dialogue. Shared knowledge is intersectional and sustains complexity, adding more voices to the mix and entertaining multiple perspectives with clarity and alacrity. Honors is on track to present seventeen Calderwood seminars by spring 2022, led by over a dozen diverse faculty from departments all across campus. These Huskies are entering society and the workforce with practice translating their academic knowledge into real-world publications and conversations.

Honors Program Associate Director Juliana Villegas has worked closely with Calderwood Director David Lindauer to help UW faculty like TaSha Levy (history/ethnic studies), Daniel Bessner (international studies), Michelle Koutnik (earth space and science), Neal Koblitz (math) and Damarys Espinoza (anthropology) to adapt Calderwood methodologies to UW’s quarterly teaching schedule. The range of expertise in the UW’s Calderwood instructors showcases that public writing skills are important to both students and faculty from many backgrounds and areas of knowledge.

Read more on Calderwood Philosophy and UW partnership

Students and faculty who’ve participated in pilot seminars agree that the model is working. In focus groups and course evaluations, student feedback (samples anonymized here) points towards boosted confidence and efficacy when communicating complicated ideas.

“I know one thing I will take with me for certain in the future in being mindful of my audience. In all my classes in the past, I wrote my papers as if I were addressing an audience similar to myself, with the same views, values and beliefs that I have. One thing this class has truly taught me is the importance of not only writing with a specific audience in mind but tailoring the writing choices and language to that audience.”

The most important thing I learned in this course had to do with accessibility of ideas. I forget that not everybody has access to higher education and, even if they did, the resources may exclude literature on ideas like feminism, racial empowerment and intersectionality. I hope I can help to better dismantle the barriers of academia as I age. As a whole, I feel I have grown immensely as both a writer and an ally because of this course. I am eager to continue my education on race and identity as well as Aztec and Mexican history, and I’m not so worried anymore about doing so.”

There are more endorsements than we could possibly share. “We were absolutely certain we could make this work at UW and it’s been thrilling to share efforts with educators from other institutions that elevate student preparedness to lead meaningful public conversations in a wide variety of fields,” explained Dr. Villegas. “I’m deeply inspired by the creativity and passion of our instructors and grateful to the Calderwood Foundation for supporting this valuable partnership.”

Calderwoods are branching out at UW.

Daniel Bessner, associate professor in the Jackson School of International Studies and Joff Hanauer Honors Professor of Western Civilization, taught one of the first Honors Calderwoods at UW and was so impressed by the model that he and his students advocated for its adoption by the Jackson School of International Studies.

“This public writing track is such a great option for our senior capstone projects, among other things,” said Dr. Bessner. “Many of our students will need to not just understand but to influence public opinion and political awareness around international policy,” he continued. “Now they will be prepared to succinctly appeal to a wider audience and be more effective in any career.”

The Jackson School recently announced a series of nine Calderwood seminars on topics like capitalism, border crossings, and a reiteration of Bessner’s Honors Calderwood: “Rethinking U.S. Foreign Policy.” Though Jackson is the first academic program to establish an extension of the successful Honors Calderwood pilot at UW, other Honors Calderwood instructors such as Jim Clauss (classics) and Joel Walker (history) are in the process of bringing Calderwood seminars to their departments. Students from across campus see the importance of public writing and have expressed how they will carry lessons from the courses into their own careers across many industries and within their personal lives.

“This training will not just be helpful in academic contexts. As a business student, I expect this class to help me in job interviews, workplace confrontations, department meetings, et cetera, settings where I am not seeking a grade but a mutually beneficial outcome. Will my coworker interpret my email in the way I intend it? Does my language in this interview come across as professional? Knowing my audience and being conscious of the purpose, meaning, and consequences of my words are universally crucial skills.”

Honors Calderwoods are always in season.

Five remaining Honors-led Calderwood seminars (listed below) will wrap up the funded pilot this year, but that won’t mark the end of them. The demonstrated impact of this model aligns closely with the mission and values of the Honors Program, foregrounding critical reflection and civic-minded pedagogy. “We will certainly continue inviting faculty to lead these courses through Honors,” said Dr. Villegas, “and help to extend public writing practice through the university and to colleagues on our Bothell and Tacoma campuses, too. Students and faculty, f you’re not seeing a Calderwood seminar in your major or home department, don’t be afraid to ask—to plant that seed.”

Fall 2021

Fashioning the Prison State: a Global History of Incarceration, Brendan Goldman (Jewish Studies)

#BlackLivesMatter in Historical Context, TaSha Levy (American Ethnic Studies)

Winter 2022

Rhetoric of Science, Leah Ceccarelli (Communications)

Spring 2022

Intersectionality, Covid-19, and the Truths Revealed, Deirdre Raynor (Interdisciplinary Arts & Science)

Science and Society in a Changing Climate, Michelle Koutnik (Earth and Space Science)