In Chapter 5 of An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing, my coauthors Susan Miller-Cochran,Stacey Cochran, and I explore some differing rhetorical contexts for which academics must sometimes write, including their own scholarly communities as well as some more popular communities. As part of that exploration, we provide annotated examples of a couple of the kinds of texts scholars sometimes write for their peers (journal article) in addition to those they may occasionally write for a more popular audience (press release).
One of our aims, of course, is to illustrate for students how different writing situations call for different types of writing, and how, as writers, we craft texts while remaining mindful of the needs of our target audiences. An assignment I’ve mentioned in earlier posts and would like to explore further in this one engages students directly—and explicitly—with this kind of audience-based rhetorical decision making: the translation project.
The assignment I’m using in my current first-year writing course asks students to translate an academic text, a peer-reviewed journal article (of their own choosing) from a natural science journal, into a more popular genre, a press release. I strategically place this assignment near the beginning of my course because it serves well as a bridge between the popular domains with which my students are often already quite familiar and the more discretely academic domains we explore as the real heart of my WID course.
Some Notes on the Process
A crucial part of supporting student success, based on my experience with this project, is spending ample time helping students read and understand their chosen journal article. If students haven’t engaged such texts previously, then they’ll need substantial support navigating the form of scholarly articles. Guided explorations of the conventional expectations (how they are typically structured, how they use reference material, etc.) for scientific journal articles can go a long way toward helping students identify the information they need to repurpose such scholarly texts for a more popular audience.
Some Natural Science Journals
For many students, understanding a press release can be just as removed from their experiences as an academic journal article. As such, it is equally important that students have some initial guided experiences with the genre, that they spend time reading and exploring various examples of press releases. Those of us who teach at research-intensive institutions may be able to pull examples of press releases designed in response to research conducted at our own institutions. At NC State, for example, I frequently direct students to the university’s news website, where they can find press releases issued daily. Additionally, there are a number of online clearinghouses for scientific press releases, including EurekAlert!,where students can explore additional examples.
I typically spend a couple of class sessions examining examples of the target translation genre. As part of our reading and discussion of these sample texts, I guide my classes to construct a substantial list of the potential conventional expectations for the genre. We explore language-level concerns, like how to deal with jargon as a writer of a press release, as well as how other writers of press releases deal with referenced materials, for example.
In addition to producing an actual press release, I also sometimes have my students write brief reflective analyses about their products. As part of these reflections, I ask students to explain what they did as part of the translation process, or to identify specific features of the scholarly article that they had to adjust, or translate, for the audience and genre of the press release. The reflective piece challenges students to identify choices they had to make as a writer, whether those choices concerned structural, reference, or language features of their text. More importantly, the reflective analysis allows students to explain why they made the decisions they did. In doing so, I believe, the reflection supports students’ metacognition and thereby enhances the transferability of a rhetorical approach to engaging with and composing texts.
There are host of other reasons why I’m particularly drawn to the translation assignment:
- For most students, the project is different from anything they’ve done before.
- The project effectively “eases” student focus from popular to more focused academic domain explorations.
- The project engages students with an authentic academic text in the form of a scholarly journal article.
- In the process of repurposing an academic text for a public audience, the assignment supports audience awareness a critical part of text production.
- Student engagement with and excitement for the project is usually quite high. Although academic articles can be challenging reads, most students enjoy the process of designing and composing their press releases.
- Students’ final products are actually fun to read.
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