Teaching College Students to Write “Content.”

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Many people are skeptical about the present era’s deluge of online news. 

I feel, however, that we are living in a golden age of commentary and information. The same forces which have devastated newspapers have led to a great flowering, in my opinion, of high quality, immediate, compelling online reading.

On one extreme, the massive scale, we see huge flows of attention passing through Facebook and Twitter everyday, leading to articles published by online publications of all kinds; on the other extreme, the personal, we also see bloggers sustained by their members, and a wealth of distinctive email newsletters.

(Yes, there is fake news. But there is also an incredible wealth of brilliant, informed writing — if one is willing to look for it.)

I am teaching a course this semester, at the University of Tennessee, to introduce students to that world, to get them reading and writing “web content.”

What do I mean by “content?” Short essays — think pieces, hot takes, rants, infographics, tweet storms, reviews, personal essays — meant to be discovered on social media, read quickly, and shared.

These pieces do not have to be short. Some are medium-length, like this brilliant take on Star Wars and its bizarre view of pregnancy; some are full-scale essays, like Andrew Sullivan’s I Used to Be Human. The field extends from the practical and functional (“How to Master ___ in Ten Easy Steps”) to the literary, shining an unexpected light on the brilliance of a single life.

I genuinely believe that this sort of writing is one of the great art forms of our time.

The class will begin with a discussion of online security and safety, then I’ll give an account of some of the history of this kind of writing (John Ruskin’s letter-based “blog,” Fors Clavigera, for instance), and then we will study theories of marketing and attention. We will write letters to editors, create Medium posts and email newsletters, design graphics and facebook ads, submit work / queries to publications like Slate, Salon, Bustle, Vox etc…

The students will track as a group the virality of their publications, and those with the most shares / followers / subscribers may get extra credit or bonuses of some kind.

Any suggestions for readings or best practices will be eagerly accepted!

5 thoughts on “Teaching College Students to Write “Content.”

  1. The most valuable thing for more generating thoughtful commentary is to actually stop reading. The 24 hr news cycle makes it difficult with the craving for the ‘most up-to-date’ info, but your brain doesn’t work that way. You do need to draw a line in the sand, stop reading, think and then write and re-write.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s really interesting. Often the trouble with teaching writing is that students are not spending their quiet hours thinking about the topic, the assignment, and so we instructors have to simulate parts of that process for them (by inviting them to one on one conferences, requesting multiple drafts etc).

      How would you suggest adding silence to a writing class?


      • I had a tutor who always allowed 10 Min at the end of every session for quiet time. You could sit and do nothing, take off to your next class, write something (eg. Essay plan), take a nap or talk one on one quietly with her outside.The rules were no talking in the room or reading or touching your phone. It was really good anchor to begin the process of thinking for students. Not everyone stayed the full ten minutes every week, but the ones who did generally had better essays because we had time to draft. Even if only briefly.

        Liked by 1 person

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