2009 Winner: Seth Dowland

Writing about Religion & Politics

Amidst one of the most engaging election campaigns in recent history, I offered a Writing 101 (20) course called “Writing About Religion and Politics.” At the outset I told students that my goal was not to help them draft a compelling brief for their favorite candidates. Instead, I asked them to consider the ways that academic writing could help us negotiate the tricky task of writing about religion and politics. I suggested to my students that academic writing—specifically its emphases on historical perspective, measured rhetoric, well-chosen evidence, and carefully constructed arguments—would provide them with a robust set of tools to write about a pair of contentious topics. Religion and politics were attracting a good bit of attention last fall, but I wagered that with training in the art of academic writing, my students could produce writing that featured more breadth and depth than all but the very best popular articles.

In order to facilitate students’ growth as writers, I asked them to take on two types of assignments: blog posts that analyzed and responded to news articles about religion’s role in the presidential campaign and a series of essays that prepared students to write a research paper on a religiously-inspired political movement in American history. I believed the interplay of academic essays about historical topics and blog posts about current events would enable students to do better work in both forums. Reading and writing historical essays would allow students to situate issues arising in the current election among broader trends in American history, while writing on the blog would encourage students to develop a stronger and more argumentative voice.

The blog worked wonderfully. Titled “Religion, Politics, & Law,” the blog featured posts from both students in my classes and students in similar courses at Drake University and Providence College. Writing for an audience beyond their classroom, students increasingly took ownership of their ideas. The blog format emboldened students to disagree with peers at other institutions more vehemently than they would in class. Tempers never got too hot, but the blog possessed a much edgier, informal feeling than any forum I had asked students to work in previously. I created a space that, while not completely out of my control, was much more my students’ home than mine.

As they were posting on the blog, students wrote a series of short assignments asking them to model writing moves they would need to implement in two longer historical essays. The short essays, based on readings about the civil rights movement and the rise of the religious right, asked students to practice “coming to terms,” “forwarding,” and “countering,” moves described in Joseph Harris’s book Rewriting: How to do Things with Texts. In the first major project, students revised and expanded one of these short essays into a longer paper featuring a historical argument about the interplay of religion and politics. After fall break, students worked primarily on a historical research project. In preparation for their essays, students wrote a research proposal, an annotated bibliography, and an “elevator speech” (a 60-second oral précis of their project). The final essays went through three drafts and ran 10-15 pages. Even as they worked on these projects, students continued to post on the blog, where I asked them to consider the relevance and implications of their research for understanding the 2008 election (see, for instance, this post). The reflexivity encouraged by the blog – reflexivity about both the implications of historical research on current events and the writing process itself – made students better writers of academic essays. It helped them see writing as a conversation about meaningful topics, and it helped them translate their best ideas into creative and sophisticated historical essays.