Two Accounts of How Calderwood Seminars Help Students Write for the Real World
Leah Nugent ’16 and Amal Cheema ’17 took Calderwood Seminars in Public Writing last year to learn how to present complex issues to a broad public audience. This summer, both had internships with major organizations, where they used many of the lessons they learned in the seminars.
Nugent, who majored in environmental studies and anthropology, worked at the Nature Conservancy in the Washington, D.C., area, writing fact sheets about stormwater management for use by the conservancy, non-government organizations (NGOs), community groups, and environmental practitioners. She also created step-by-step partnership guides for groups that want to collaborate to solve environmental issues. “All of these projects challenged me to write in an accessible manner,” said Nugent.
At Wellesley, Nugent learned how to understand the complexity of environmental and social issues, and how to develop practical, interdisciplinary approaches that address both human needs and sustainability. “I firmly believe that many stakeholders, especially residents of vulnerable communities, need to be directly involved in decision-making processes in order to successfully address complex ills such as climate change and water pollution,” she said. “However, without the ability to effectively communicate with and learn from these groups, such solutions are impossible.”
In Fall 2015, Nugent took ES399: Environmental Synthesis and Communication, taught by Jay Turner, associate professor of environmental studies, which challenged students to write about an environmental issue of their choosing in various formats. Over the course of the semester, Nugent wrote news articles, blog posts, appeal letters, and op-eds about rare earth mining in China. “I had to define rare earth minerals in different ways in order to appeal to each different audience,” she said.
Calderwood seminars are unique because they feature multiple peer editing sessions and require students to constantly revise their writing. “The feedback from my professor and peers taught me that each format has a unique style,” Nugent said.
That experience was especially helpful when she tackled one of her most challenging pieces, a two-page fact sheet encouraging land developers to adopt green solutions to reduce their stormwater runoff. “My first draft was effective at highlighting the environmental benefits, but I did not clearly show how green solutions to stormwater management were directly relatable to land developers,” she said. “I had neglected to mention the economic and regulatory benefits.”
As Nugent revised, she realized it was more effective to use bullet points and visuals rather than dense paragraphs filled with information. She also learned that a fact sheet must grab the reader’s attention—or no one will read it—and the main points must be highlighted so that the call to action will not be lost. “Effective communication is one of the most important parts of writing for general audiences,” she said. “If I hadn’t utilized the lessons I learned in Calderwood, the message of my fact sheet would have been entirely lost.”
Cheema, a biochemistry and political science double major, worked as a health financing analyst with the Clinton Health Access Initiative in Kigali, Rwanda. She said she often drew on lessons she learned last semester in WRIT 390: Law, Medicine, and Ethics, taught by Lynne Viti, senior lecturer in the writing program.
“My work involved distilling complex, integrated ideas and reports into easily accessible narratives and presentations,” said Cheema, who hopes to become a doctor. “Health care depends on a physician’s ability to make esoteric principles accessible to her patients.”
Cheema, who has edited opinion pieces for The Wellesley News since 2014, said the Calderwood Seminar challenged her to think critically about how bioethical issues affect all of society. “Public writing is a form of communication and the integrated approach—combining law, medicine, and ethics—gave me an accurate insight into the complexity of health care,” she said.
While most of their writing was based in research, Cheema and her peers wove elements of their own experience into op-eds, and they wrote from the perspective of patients, in order to gain a deeper understanding of the needs of a general audience.
“I practiced elucidating academic adages as straightforward ideas in the Calderwood,” said Cheema, who has since had several articles published by the Huffington Post. “I also realized that my writing benefits from the revision process and from workshopping, which focuses on questions such as: Why are you writing this piece? Who is this for? What impact do you hope this piece will have? Can you write it in a clearer and more concise way?”
As Cheema begins her senior year, she said she plans to continue writing about medical issues, which she now views as an essential part of her career path. “The Calderwood improved both my writing and my potential to write,” she said. “The questions I internalized in that course drive both my journalism and my desire to help people get the care they deserve.”