Making their voices heard
Two Mount Holyoke students turn a class writing assignment into an opportunity to change the public conversation.
In his 30 years of teaching at Mount Holyoke, Preston H. Smith II has found one thing to be true of virtually all his students. “Mount Holyoke students are very passionate about the world. They have strong opinions about what is going on in the world,” he said.
This spring, Smith put those strong opinions to use in his seminar on race and housing. Instead of assigning a 25-page research paper that would be read mostly by other students and graded by Smith, he gave the class a different kind of writing project: writing an op-ed. Students could take any position but had to be prepared to back up their stance with high-quality research. And they needed to write in a way that would move the general public to action.
Two of those op-eds ended up making their way into print, bringing the convictions of Mount Holyoke students into the center of meaningful community conversations.
When Smith was planning this spring’s seminar, he found himself looking for ways to bring direct action into his race and housing seminar, a 300-level course. As the former director of the Community-Based Learning program, Smith believes hands-on learning is a powerful teaching tool. “I think project-based research gives learning a certain kind of urgency,” he said.
But beyond urgency, Smith wanted the students to feel power and agency in his classroom and beyond. “We are not only preparing students for the workforce, but more importantly, we are preparing them for citizenship,” explained Smith. “We want to help them sharpen their tools so they can be effective communicators.” And being able to write for a newspaper is part of being an effective communicator.
Nora Carrier ’23, from Brooklyn, New York, knew exactly what she wanted to write about when Smith explained the assignment.
“I have lived in New York my whole life, and I’ve always been really interested in housing because the housing market here is so unaffordable. It prioritizes really wealthy people versus the people who actually live here,” Carrier said. Watching more and more New York housing transition to luxury — but empty — investment properties has made them concerned about the future of low-income neighbors.
An op-ed, short for “opposite the editorial page,” is a piece of opinion writing. It’s usually written by a contributing author, not a member of a publication’s staff. Op-eds present an argument, and they generally need to be in tune with the news cycle and keep the audience of the publication in mind, said Smith.
While an op-ed can be about anything, these pieces need to be impactful and attention-grabbing for editors to pick them out of what is often a sea of submissions. To help students get a feel for the structure of a good op-ed, Smith asked David Hernández, the faculty director of community engagement and former director of the Speaking, Arguing and Writing Program, to lead a workshop for his class. “We went over process and structure, and he gave them some hints on how to construct a compelling lede — the opening line that grabs a reader’s attention,” said Smith.
From there, students brainstormed topic ideas and workshopped early drafts with their peers. For Gabbi Perry ’23, from Holyoke, Massachusetts, the biggest challenge was keeping her op-ed under word count. Publications rarely run pieces over 1,000 words, so students had to keep their arguments succinct. But the importance of rent control, the topic Perry chose, is an issue she’s very passionate about.
“There were dozens of other examples I wanted to use in my op-ed to demonstrate the importance and severity of this issue, but working within the confines of short reader attention spans made me leave them out,” she said. (The good news is that she’s saving those anecdotes for future pieces.)
While whittling her topic down was hard, Perry said this assignment helped her develop a skill she plans to use well into the future. “Being able to take a position on an issue, formulate a strong argument and present it to the public is an essential part of making change on issues you care about,” said Perry. She added, “The reason I study what I do [environmental studies and politics] at Mount Holyoke College is so I can be prepared to work on these issues in the ‘real world’ and to have the difficult conversations needed to make change in our communities.”
Ultimately, Smith’s goal was simply to give his students the tools they would need to engage in the broader political conversations happening around them. “It was just a course-based exercise,” he said, adding that publishing their op-eds was never part of the original assignment. But when students started submitting their work to editors, Smith was thrilled to see them taking their arguments into the public sphere. “That was just the icing on the cake,” he said.
Both Perry and Carrier were able to publish their op-eds in local news outlets. In early May, Perry’s op-ed arguing for the return of rent control in Massachusetts ran in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. In late May, Carrier’s piece on ending tax incentives for luxury — and often vacant — housing in New York ran on NYN Media. Both said that the feedback on their work has been positive. They also insist that these won’t be the only op-eds they publish, and that they’re grateful Smith chose this assignment.
Smith, meanwhile, is delighted that several of his students wanted to take their assignments beyond the course requirement. “To me, students getting publicly involved and engaged is the point. I am really gratified that students submitting their pieces for publication came out of one of my classes,” he said. And if the hearts and minds of those who read these two op-eds were changed? For a professor, that’s about as good as it can get—in Smith’s opinion, at least.