Thursday, February 5, 2009

UW20 Students Work in DC Communities, Learn How to Make Writing Do Work

Students in Prof. Phyllis Mentzell Ryder's UW20 course forge connections among writing, public needs, and knowledge-making through community work.  If you've taken (or are taking) Prof. Ryder's course or are a member of one of the community organizations in which Prof. Ryder's students have worked, we'd love to hear about your experiences.  Leave a comment!

Prof. Ryder writes:

For the past few years, I've connected my sections of UW20 to Washington, DC nonprofit organizations and I require my students to spend at least twenty hours during the semester working off-campus in these DC communities. Students in my sections have to take some extra initiative—they have to get out of Foggy Bottom, meet people they probably wouldn't have talked to if they'd passed on the street, and start noticing local community cultures and languages. All of this might seem antithetical to what a "writing class" should be. But for me, teaching a writing class that includes service to DC organizations creates rich opportunities for students to go beyond understanding the connections among writing, publics, and knowledge-making to forging those connections for themselves. Following are some of the key features and benefits of this approach to UW20.
  • We come together as a community of people who are working, learning, and living in Washington DC. We're not just students having to take a writing course, but people who have decided to help DC school kids succeed academically, or to treat homeless men and women with dignity and respect, or to support high school kids as they write rap songs about nature and perform them in an outdoor concert. And since we're using writing, research, and analysis to do this work in the community, our time together in the classroom has more purpose too. 
  • While we have textbooks and essays on Blackboard, the real learning in the course happens as we observe what happens in the "real world" and try to make sense of it. Students come to their research projects not just as "students" but community-workers with their own expertise. Sometimes, they talk back to the textbooks and scholarly articles as community-workers, because they can see new perspectives that these scholars may not acknowledge. Working in the community brings new voices into the academic conversations.
  • We pay careful attention to how the leaders in our community organizations use language to get things done. After all, community organizers have to motivate people all the time: they have to convince volunteers to come work at their organization and not somewhere else; they have to convince donors that their cause is worth funding; they have to convince community members that their approach to community issues is the right approach. So the websites and documents of community organizations are rich, hands-on studies of writing. We study these carefully so that we can enter into these communities and speak their language. 

    Learning how to enter a professional community by studying it's habitual uses of language is not so different from what we do as students. As we choose majors and start figuring out how to talk and write like a biochemist or a psychologist or an art historian—we're always trying to understand the discourse of the community we're entering. In my writing sections, this process of "reading" the discourse so that we can speak it more fluently is a central aspect of the course. Its easier to do with community organizations than academic disciplines because community organizations are usually much more upfront about their missions and goals.
In my experience, students have a much richer understanding of both public and academic writing by the end of the course. This emphasis on public writing makes sense to me, since only some freshmen go on to be professors, but all will be citizens.


  1. I took a service learning UW with Professor Ryder last year. My area of service learning focused on the environment, and I worked with Washington Parks and People. I think service learning UW's are the best way to go. The topics we talked about during class time actually applied to my work with WPP, and I felt that I could really use what I was learning in the real world. Not only did the class apply to my work with WPP, but my final paper directly helped the organization I worked with, so I didn't feel like I was writing a useless research paper that would get thrown away after being graded. It's great that we have this option for UWs at this school. Not only did I learn how to write college-grade papers, but could also apply my skills to an organization and help them progress. In fact, I continued to work with WPP's coordinator this year on a new organization- an opportunity I would never have had had it not been for Professor Ryder's UW service learning class.

  2. As a freshman in Professor Ryder's UW20 course last year, learning through service in the community not only helped me to become a better writer, but also taught me a lot about my new DC community. Volunteering at the Dinner Program for Homeless Women each week helped me to gain a better understanding of the issues of poverty and homelessness facing DC.

    I wrote my research paper for the course about sexual violence against homeless women and the paper had an added sense of urgency to me because of my work at DPHW. Putting real faces to the issues we read about in class made the academic discourses come alive and I grappled with how to make the research I was doing as useful as possible largely because of my relationship with DC's homeless.

    I am grateful to have taken a class that equipped me not only with an appreciation for my DC community, but also with the research and writing skills to analyze and seek to change it. I hope that more professors at GW will incorporate service-learning into their classes as it has been an invaluable part of my experience.

    -Anna Johnson