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The power of writing to communicate knowledge

Many ASU degrees offer courses on writing, communicating to a general audience.
Op-eds can be a valuable tool for both voicing opinion and staying informed.
ASU journalism prof says op-eds should be clear, concise and interesting.
February 10, 2017

ASU workshops, courses emphasize importance of relaying intricacies of complicated subjects to general audience

A roomful of teachers are huddled in groups around pages of text, hurriedly highlighting, circling and underlining certain words and phrases. This isn’t a paper-grading marathon, though — it’s a writing workshop, and the pages they’re marking up are op-ed letters.

Find Your Voice: Using OpEds to Tell Your Story and Fight for Justice, sponsored by the Central Arizona Writing Project (CAWP), brought together elementary and high school teachers from across the Valley at ASU Prep Academy’s downtown Phoenix campus in February to learn practical lessons for both personal writing and teaching writing to their students.

ASU associate professor of English and director of CAWP Jessica Early was on hand for the event. She said learning how to write op-eds can impart “really important, practical skills that help people to be participatory citizens, and also help students learn how to write for a real audience.”

ASU courses geared toward communication

An awareness of the value in teaching students to be better communicators is evident at ASU across disciplines. Several degree tracks — including those in the fields of sustainability, science and health — require or offer courses geared specifically toward learning how to communicate the sometimes-complicated intricacies of a subject to a more general audience.

Gregg ZacharyGreg Zachary is a professor of practice in ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society; Barrett Honors faculty; affiliate faculty in ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious studies; affiliate faculty in ASU’s Department of English; journalism disruptor at the Imaginary College, part of ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination; editor of the “Rightful Place of Science” book series for ASU’s Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes; and author of “Married to Africa” (2009), “The Diversity Advantage” (2003), “Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century” (1997) and “Showstopper: the Making of Windows NT” (1994)., professor in ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, serves as acting director of the certificate in nonfiction writing and publishing, currently offered by the School of Life SciencesThe certificate in nonfiction writing and publishing will soon transfer from the School of Life Sciences to the School for the Future of Innovation in Society..

“I think it’s part of your obligation as a learned person … that you make your knowledge or the work you’re doing understandable to others,” Zachary said.

He points to School of Earth and Space Exploration Foundation Professor Lawrence Krauss as an example of an academic who “writes very effectively and clearly about science subjects.”

School of Life Sciences Regents’ Professor Stephen Pyne, an expert on fire history, teaches courses in the certificate program and has also written and published widely, including several op-eds for the New York Times. He cited wise words from fellow SOLS professor Brian Smith, who said, “If we don’t start communicating better with the public, we’ll be out of business.”

Communication a way to change the world

Heather Grimm, who teaches science at ASU Prep, admits she didn’t know much about persuasive writing or communicating expertise with the public before coming to the CAWP workshop but that she sees the value in it.

woman teaching class

ASU Prep English teacher Ashley Yap
leads a workshop on op-ed writing
in downtown Phoenix.

Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

“Great ideas start very small,” she said. “People used to think the world was flat. Allowing people to voice their knowledge and opposition can change opinions.”

Tracie McMurray, an English teacher at Mountain View High School in Mesa who also attended the workshop, said she sometimes worries that misinformation perpetuated by the media can “make it harder for people to understand what’s really going on.”

Fighting misinformation

Misinformation is all too common in the media, agrees ASU professor Carol Johnston. She serves as associate director of the nutrition program, which offers a bachelor’s in nutrition communication.

“There is a lot of miscommunication and misconception out there, and nutrition is one of those topics everyone has an opinion about,” she said.

The nutrition communication program was started so that nutrition students could train in the area of media and communication in order to combat falsities and half-truths about the field.

“Training people to be good communicators to help set the record straight with factual information is so important,” said Johnston, “especially now with social media,” which can spread bad information very quickly.

More structure than social media

Attendees at the workshop expressed similar concerns about social media, saying that they felt that learning to write persuasively in a more structured way, as in an op-ed, lent more credence to their points of view.

Ashley Yap, an English teacher at ASU Prep and one of the workshop leaders, added to that sentiment.

“We have outlets like social media, but those are bite-sized,” Yap said. “Op-eds force you to pause and consider what you want to say and how to say it. It’s this special place that’s different from just firing off a tweet or sharing something that’s already been written.”

ASU journalism professor Julia WallaceJulia Wallace is a professor of practice and the Frank Russell Chair at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The Frank Russell Chair was created in 2000 through a $1 million gift from Central Newspapers Inc. said op-eds can be a valuable tool for everyday citizens who want to be more informed.

“What op-eds do is allow us to hear from many different voices on any given topic,” she said, giving readers an accessible way to grasp the pros and cons of an issue. “They can be a really effective way to get people to think a little more about their position.”

Tips for an effective op-ed

Wallace shares her advice for those who hope to write an op-ed — and get it published:

  • Be clear. The main thing is clarity of thought. A big reason op-eds don’t make it into newspapers is because they try to make too many points at once. Figure out what your point is, what is the one message you want to leave the reader with.
  • Be concise. Write clearly and concisely. You want to cram as much information in there as you can. Give specific examples, but keep it short and sweet.
  • Be interesting. You’ve got to figure out how to make it interesting. Tell a personal anecdote, make it come to life with an example. Give people something that makes them want to keep reading.
  • Know your audience. Depending on the publication, you may want to adjust your style. Read what kind of op-eds get published there. How to write an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal will be different than how to write an op-ed for USA Today.

Top photo: ASU Prep biology teacher Camila Tompkins points out some weaker arguments in an op-ed during a writing workshop at ASU Prep in February. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

ASU names Outstanding Doctoral Mentors for 2016-2017

February 10, 2017

An award-winning professor in counseling and psychology, an international expert in linguistics, and a renowned authority in geographical sciences and urban planning have been named the Outstanding Doctoral Mentors of 2016-2017 by Arizona State University Graduate College.

Terence Tracey, Elly van Gelderen and Elizabeth Wentz have been lauded for their generous commitment to their students’ success while maintaining daunting speaking and publishing schedules of their own.  Download Full Image

Nomination letters from students and colleagues praised the mentors for championing students from diverse backgrounds, for including their graduate students as co-authors on published papers, providing the skills for their students to be professionals in their chosen careers and instilling high values and standards.

“ASU is fortunate to have hundreds of outstanding mentors,” said Alfredo Artiles, dean of the Graduate College. “We are honoring these three individuals who exemplify the commitment and caring of extraordinary mentors.”

Terence Tracey, Counseling and Counseling Psychology

Terence Tracey
professor, counseling and counseling psychology
College of Integrative Sciences and Arts

Tracey’s research focuses on interpersonal models of personality and psychotherapy, the structure and development of vocational interests, and minority student academic success. His scholarly contributions have been recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA) with the Leona Tyler Award for Lifetime Distinguished Contribution to Counseling Psychology and an APA presidential citation for the impact of his research on the fields of counseling and social psychology. One of the most published authors in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, Tracey shares the spotlight with his graduate students, including them as co-authors in publications, presentations and book chapters. He is a registered psychologist and National Board Certified Psychologist as well as Counselor, and has also been a practicing therapist.

Tracey created the Personal Globe Inventory (PGI), a general assessment tool for measuring vocational interests and competence perceptions for those 15 years and older. The downloadable software is in use in schools internationally. Students credit his superior knowledge of statistics, research methods, supervision and clinical counseling as critical to their future careers. As a deeply committed mentor who communicates the highest expectations to students, they praise him as generous with his time, knowledge and patience. Tracey states that one of the goals of mentoring is to move students from receivers of information to contributors of knowledge.

“I give an annual lecture entitled 'Get B’s — stop getting A’s.' The gist of which is that graduate school is different," Tracey said. "Figure out what you wish to gain and then seize opportunities to do so. These opportunities do not generally arise in your courses. Search out mentors to give you wisdom.”

Elly Van Gelderen, English linguistics

Elly van Gelderen
Regents’ Professor, Department of English
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

A renowned author and authority in her field, van Gelderen lectures at conferences nationally and internationally. Her work focuses on linguistics, particularly in historical and comparative syntax. A colleague notes that her passion for linguistics is contagious to native and non-native speakers of English. Students aiming for a career in teaching and academics are her traditional students, but she also mentors students going into an applied area of linguistics such as Artificial Intelligence. “I have encouraged knowledge of and enthusiasm for my own area of syntax,” she says, “but have been excited to work with students in areas that are not my own.”

As van Gelderen continues to expand the boundaries of her own expertise, she encourages research in many languages and has conducted reading courses in Arabic, Dutch, Yiddish and Swedish, and with students who also wanted to study O’odham, Navajo and the Mayan languages. She has formed linguistics workshops at ASU which serve as a place for students and faculty to read the most current work in syntax and to practice their conference publications or dissertation chapters.

Selflessly dedicated to her students, she has been praised as consistently available to students, in person and by email, when she is traveling internationally. In addition to being an inspiration to students from many different backgrounds, nationalities and experiences, she is also an active participant in human rights and environmental organizations.

“I am very thankful to my PhD students in working with me on so many exciting projects,” van Gelderen said. “Students at ASU have incredibly diverse interests. I have had the pleasure to deepen my work on the grammar and history of English as well as to look into different languages, from Ainu to Zuni. I believe in enthusiasm, gaining a broad picture of the field, and in hard work.”

Elizabeth Wentz, Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning

Elizabeth Wentz
professor, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning
dean of social sciences, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Wentz uses geographic technologies, which include Geographic Information Systems (GIS), remote sensing, and spatial analysis to offer insight into urban environments. One of her current projects focuses on water resource management to help local decision makers, such as planning and zoning committees. One aspect of this is using the Environmental Spatial Decision Support System (ESDSS) modeling to improve household water and energy consumption, and how to plant trees so that they use minimal water while providing maximum shade for homes.

As a teacher of geographic technologies, research design and proposal writing, her students praise her for her willingness to share skills knowledge and expertise, teaching them to think critically and creatively, her encouragement to reach their full potential, and on her insistence that they maintain a healthy work/life balance.

Active in the Association of American Geographers and GIS community, her strong professional relationships have contributed to the success she has placing doctoral students after graduation. She keeps her students aware of the latest developments in the field as well as funding opportunities. Wentz stated that it is “an honor to be trusted by individuals with this important step in their professional and personal lives.”

Among her many publications is the book “How to Design, Write, and Present a Successful Dissertation Proposal,” which guides students through the dissertation proposal process.

“I consider it a privilege to advise hard working and intelligent individuals,” Wentz said. “It is the most significant place where I believe I’m making an impact.”

Photos by Andy DeLisle/ASU

Editor Associate, University Provost