August 22, 2005
UCSC instructor links writing to democracy
in Higher Education Exchange interview
By Scott Rappaport
Don Rothman views the writing classroom as a laboratory for
Don Rothman is cofounder of the Central California Writing Project, an outreach arm of the UCSC Writing Program and one of 185 national project sites dedicated to the support and professional development of all teachers of writing.
Photo: Scott Rappaport
After 27 years of guiding teachers and 32 years of teaching
college students, he is convinced that writing classes are temporary
communities in which students can develop critical thinking
skills and lifelong habits that can contribute to democracy.
A senior writing lecturer and founding director of UCSCs
Central California Writing Project, Rothman was recently sought
out by the editor of Higher Education Exchange, a journal
of the nonprofit Kettering Foundation. The result is a 12-page
interview exploring Rothmans passion for connecting his
work with undergraduates to civic engagement.
Rothman emphasized the importance of teaching students about
the nature and role of persuasion in a democracy.
One widespread belief regarding persuasion is that one
should never weaken ones position by devoting much space
to the other side, he noted. I cant tell you
how often my students register surprise when I suggest that
compelling essays mostly focus on issues about which thoughtful
people disagree, and that the substance of that disagreement
should be evident in their essays.
During class conversations, we often notice how our
political leaders rarely express respect for others views
that have shaped their own, he added. We have almost
no public models revealing how persuasion based on logic and
reason can be integral to elevating our collective intelligence
about crucial issues
.It seems to me that democracy requires
a kind of patience to listen to what others have to say to work
toward policies that are informed by diverse thinking. That
means learning how to sustain other peoples thinking and
not just ones own. Writing can be really good for that.
Rothman, a recipient of the 2002 Distinguished Teaching Award
from the UCSC Center for Teaching Excellence, believes that
writing offers a nonviolent way to negotiate differences and
persuade without coercion. He also questions why a country that
prides itself on freedom of speech and freedom of the press
educates so many people to be allergic to writing.
Were getting the cream of the crop at the university,
but many of these students hate writing and even choose their
major to avoid having to do it, Rothman observed. Unfortunately,
writing is rarely taught in schools as a tool for nonviolent
persuasion or as a multifaceted activity whose effectiveness
often requires us to enhance our empathy. It is rarely taught
as a tool for exploring ways to live together.
Rothman cofounded the Central California Writing Project in
1977. An outreach arm of the UCSC Writing Program, it is one
of 185 national project sites dedicated to the support and professional
development of all teachers of writing. He began teaching undergraduate
writing classes in 1973, and also spent two years as provost
of Oakes College in the early 1990s.
UCSC's Writing Program has always embraced the teaching
of writing as a way to nurture students' success in the university
and their leadership in society, Rothman noted.
For the most part when I meet these freshmen, they are
quite limited in their awareness of public life beyond the importance
of voting, he added.
I see them as beginners, not only as writers certainly,
but as citizens. I would like the 10 weeks that they spend with
me in a writing class to awaken their imaginations about who
they are in the context of exploring who we are and can be collectively.
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