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For some fifty years now, I’ve had two favorite times of year: fall term, when I’ve gotten to welcome first-year students to campus for orientation; and spring term, specifically May, when I’ve always been involved in student writing award ceremonies. It’s that second time of year again right now, and colleges and universities across the country are honoring students for outstanding work in writing—and increasingly, in speaking.
When I was serving as Director of Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric, we had an opportunity to redesign the writing curriculum and to create a new second-year course focusing on research-based writing and more specifically on the oral presentation of that research. I remember the excitement and the angst that went into designing and piloting this new course. Those were the early days of using “new” technologies in our classrooms, and we were learning to use the technology ourselves at the same time we were engaging our students in using it. (I am just thankful that my first attempt at a PowerPoint presentation was not recorded for posterity!)
In the first year of teaching this new course, our students undertook significant research projects, presenting them first in written form and then, after considerable revision, in oral/multimedia form. We learned right away that our students loved the work of transforming a lengthy written essay into a 12-to-15-minute oral/multimedia presentation and that doing so inevitably sharpened their thinking and the point of their arguments. In fact, our students insisted, in that first year, on revising their written essays in light of what they had learned in “winnowing” them into oral presentations.
That was long ago, and now this assignment sequence is used by teachers and students across the country. And the course is still very popular at Stanford—and has gotten better and better as the Program in Writing and Rhetoric has refined and improved it.
Just last week, the nominees and winners of the Lunsford Oral Presentation of Research Awards were honored at a reception, during which winners and their projects were introduced by their instructors, who presented them with several books, a certificate of merit, and a cash award. I attended the event virtually and was thrilled by the depth and breadth of research these students have undertaken—and by their poise and eloquence. I’ve since watched their presentations, and you can do so, too.
The work these second-year college students are doing is inspiring, especially considering that these students suffered through the Covid pandemic. Topics included the resistance to monolingualism in general and standardized French in particular in a presentation titled “Investigating the Diverse Dynamics of English Language Borrowing in French Rap Music”; “When Disability and Design Meet”; “Professionalism of Black Hair: Workplace Standards or a Continuation of Bondage”; “How Not to Forget: Collective Memory on Social Media”; and “Where Have Our Mothers Gone? Remedying the Native American Infant and Maternal Health Disparity Crisis with Traditional Birthing Practices.”
In accepting the awards, these students invariably thanked not only their instructors but also their peers, commenting on how much they had learned from working together and on how much support they had received. So while each of the presentations was authored by one student, the importance of collaboration and the collaboration nature of the entire endeavor was mentioned over and over. Even though I was not there physically, the strength of the mutual admiration society gathered to celebrate exemplary research and equally exemplary presentation of it was palpable. In her magnificent poem “To Be of Use,” Marge Piercy says that a “thing worth doing, done well, has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.” These students’ work was surely worth doing (several commented that an “assignment” had turned into a “passion” that would continue to guide their studies), was surely done well, and surely took a shape that “satisfies, clean and evident.” It was an honor and privilege to be among these students.
I expect that teachers of writing across the country are attending similar ceremonies this month. How I wish I could meet some of the students winning awards for writing and speaking at their universities to offer congratulations–and thanks.
Image by King of Hearts from Wikimedia Commons
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