UCSC instructor links writing to democracy in Higher Education Exchange interview

Don Rothman views the writing classroom as a laboratory for democracy. 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 UCSC's 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 Rothman's 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 one's position by devoting much space to the other side," he noted. "I can't 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 people's thinking and not just one's 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.

"We're 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."