Widely read but rarely assigned in college
Every day thousands of essays are published by newspapers large and small across the country. They drive conversation about current affairs and their influence on public debate cannot be overstated. Debates on talk radio, cable news, blogs and social media are often in response to editorials published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other national newspapers. And they are not the exclusive province of professional pundits — anyone can submit an op-ed to a newspaper.
Despite this significance, students are rarely asked to write an essay in the op-ed form, which is shorter than a typical college paper but longer than a social media post. An op-ed assignment should be in any composition course themed around public discourse.
Students write an essay about a public problem or issue of public concern as if they intended to submit it for publication by the op-ed page of The New York Times. Unlike an academic term paper, the student's values and beliefs about right and wrong, justice and injustice, et cetera are important to this essay. They must craft an arguable thesis statement and then support their claims with a combination of empirical evidence, logic, and clearly articulated values.
The op-ed should:
Give students freedom
The op-ed genre is much more flexible and open to creativity than the formulaic expectations of academic writing. Decisions about tone, style, content, audience, et cetera should be entirely up to the student. However, not everything goes. Creative and rhetorical choices should be appropriate for the student's chosen audience, message, and goals.
The question of citations
Newspaper op-eds do not contain in-text citations or bibliographies. The paper's editors fact-check the claims of each op-ed before publication. In a classroom setting however, you need to see where the student has gotten their information. It's probably a good idea to have students include in-text citations and a works cited page.
Don't provide sample op-eds
The op-ed genre is broad, but if you the instructor provide sample op-eds, students will assume you want their essays to look like the samples. You will end up with a dozen poor imitations of your sample op-eds. Rather than provide examples, have students search newspapers themselves, find 2-3 op-eds they thought were particularly good or bad and then as a class review them and discuss their features. In other words, let students discover on their own the contours of the genre rather than providing a set of guidelines.
1. Students don't make an argument
After years of writing formulaic expository essays for high school standardized tests, my students thought persuasion was simply a matter of having the correct information and explaining it clearly. They had a "just the facts" attitude to argumentation and did not perceive a difference between expository and persuasive writing. Every time I assigned a persuasive essay at least some students turned in expository essays that explained a viewpoint without ever engaging with opponents. Old habits were hard to break.
I like They Say/I Say as a textbook because it is the most straightforward explanation of argumentative writing out there. It's all in the title: you can't have an argument in a vacuum. You have to engage with other people. While intended as a primer on academic writing, its central insight that every essay exists as part of an ongoing dialog applies to public discourse as well.
2. Students declare their values or beliefs but do nothing else
One of the most common high school essay assignments asks students to explain and defend a position on something. These essays are expository because they are explanations of "why I believe X" rather than attempts to persuade someone to accept a proposition. Because students prefer the familiar and the comfortable, some of them will treat the op-ed assignment like a high school "defend a position" essay.
At worst such essays could be criticized as virtue signaling, since the author seems to have no purpose other than to publicly display their values. Students must be reminded that they are writing for a real audience in a public forum, hence their op-ed should have a persuasive goal and public purpose. I had a few defensive students argue their goal was to "raise awareness." My response was to ask what they wanted the reader to do with that awareness and to make that thing explicit.