In their guide to writing an op-ed, the Washington Post lists the goals that inform their decisions about which opinion pieces to publish. The last four bullet points read like a page from the cultural anthropology pedagogical playbook: “Elevate ideas that help [readers] think about the world differently. Expose them to topics they might not have heard about. Help them better articulate their own perspective. Help them understand perspectives different from their own.”
And in fact, as I have learned from having my students write opinion essays in four classes over the past two years, the op-ed is an excellent option for a written assignment in undergraduate cultural anthropology courses. Making an op-ed assignment part of the work for a course communicates to students the value of public scholarship and the relevance of anthropological knowledge. Researching and writing op-eds empowers them to share their knowledge and contribute to public conversations. And, as a bonus, the assignment helps students become better writers.
Who Is This Knowledge for?
The first time I taught Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, seventy-five percent of the assigned readings were academic journal articles. Many of them were very challenging reads. When I recently found a copy of that syllabus, I laughed out loud: total rookie move.
In the years since, I have radically changed my approach. In my Intro syllabus for the upcoming semester, just two assigned readings are journal articles. That’s not to say there’s no space for challenging academic texts in undergraduate courses, even introductory ones. I still occasionally assign complex readings that are guaranteed to blow students’ minds if they put in the hard work. The choice to maximize the space for public scholarship in my syllabi is instead about showcasing work that is accessible, that strives to share the nuanced insights that come from an anthropological approach with as broad an audience as possible. When I assign SAPIENS pieces, I provide my students with examples of brilliant scholars who use clear, engaging, and jargon-free prose to communicate perspective-shifting ideas.
This same logic informed my decision to make public scholarship assignments part of my courses. No offense to the standard analytical essay, but it doesn’t exactly teach students how to convey their ideas in a way that is accessible and interesting to a broad audience. No student has ever told me that they shared an analytical essay they wrote with their best friend or dad. Every time I assign op-eds, on the other hand, at least a few students mention that they sent theirs to friends or family. I recognize that this is purely anecdotal, but it speaks to students’ awareness that they have created something that others—even those who know little about cultural anthropology or a specific topic—will find approachable, relevant, and thought-provoking. Thus, the assignment doesn’t just convey the value of public scholarship; it also inspires students to share their knowledge and become part of the conversation about urgent social concerns.
An Exercise in Empowerment
Op-eds are part of a repertoire of assignments that empower students to participate in social change outside the classroom. For me, the op-ed was one response to a persistent concern I had heard from students since I began teaching: what are we supposed to do with this knowledge? Many contemporary cultural anthropology courses deal with heavy topics around power and inequality, and, as Angela Jenks has noted, our class discussions can “leave students feeling overwhelmed and helpless.” This has certainly been my experience. Because op-eds are interventions into pressing issues that ideally include a clear call to action, they provide an opportunity for students to envision and articulate possibilities for change. In this schema, knowledge becomes the impetus for action.
I also assign op-eds with the objective of building students’ confidence in their knowledge and perspectives—especially students from groups whose expertise has historically been devalued and whose voices have been excluded from the public sphere. Traditional academic essays often follow rigid standards for what constitutes “proper” scholarly writing. Op-eds, on the other hand, invite students to write in a voice that feels authentic. As the New York Times advises prospective opinion writers, “Write in your own voice… Don’t write the way you think important people write, or the way you think important pieces should sound.” In my experience, students embrace this challenge, and their confidence grows in the process.
Finally, op-eds are a tool for helping students become better researchers and writers. Because op-eds must be concise, crystal clear, and well-substantiated, I have found that researching and writing them helps students improve their writing and argumentation skills more than any other assignment. There is no room for generalizations, tangents, or equivocation in an op-ed. To write an excellent one, students have to do meticulous research, develop a clear argument, and construct it point by point, with support from a variety of sources and types of evidence. And, they must write in a way that keeps readers engaged from beginning to end. These are valuable skills that will serve students on other written assignments, in different classes, and beyond university.
The Op-Ed Assignment
As a starting point, you’ll want to make sure that students know what an op-ed is, since not all will be familiar with the word. I begin by explaining that “op-ed” is shorthand for “opposite the editorial page,” where opinion pieces are typically located in print newspapers. Then I provide a more informative definition: an op-ed is a persuasive and concise public text about a timely issue of pressing importance.
Because many students have never written an op-ed, I provide a suggested structure, which I adapted from the OpEd Project. I include not just the text of the op-ed, but all the bits and pieces that come before and after it in a published piece, including the headline, images, and the author bio:
- Subhead–a 1-2-sentence blurb that goes under the headline. (I’ve also seen this called the drophead or the deck in newspaper lingo.)
- Byline, date, and at least one image with a caption and image credit
- 2-3 points in support of the argument
- A counterargument and rebuttal (what the OpEd Project calls the “to be sure paragraph”)
- Walk-off–a call to action or proposed solution
- Author bio and optionally author photo
One caveat here: I have never required my students to submit their pieces to a publication, so this set-up is meant to produce a text that simulates a published op-ed. Writers don’t normally get to choose the headline, subhead, or images for their op-ed. The next time I use this assignment, I will have students submit just the text of the op-ed to a publication of their choice, but I will still ask them to produce this “published version” for the course.
The word limit for this assignment is 700-1000 words. I require students to cite at least 10 credible sources using hyperlinks, and they also submit a bibliography.
Explaining and Illustrating the Parts of an Op-Ed
In the first three iterations of this assignment, I first lectured about the different parts of the op-ed, and then assigned examples of published op-eds for students to read and discuss. Last semester, I reversed these steps, and it was much more effective. Here’s the approach:
At home, students read 4-5 examples of published op-eds that are topically related to the course. I always include some by anthropologists and other scholars. So, when I teach about the Mexico-U.S. Border, I assign pieces by Ieva Jusionyte and historian Karl Jacoby. In Medical Anthropology, I have students read an op-ed by Abigail Dumes. I also recommend including at least one example that you don’t think is excellent.
In preparation for our discussion, students answer a few questions about the op-eds. I ask them to identify and evaluate the hook, argument, and call to action for each piece, as well as summarizing their overall impression of the op-ed.
In class, we go back and forth between explanatory slides and the examples they’ve read. I start by listing the characteristics of the op-ed genre, like short paragraphs and sentences, and simple language. I have them look at one of the examples, and I ask guiding questions: how many sentences does each paragraph have? How many words are there in each sentence in this paragraph? I also ask them to count the number of hyperlinks, and we talk about how these citations are used to bolster the writer’s expertise and credibility, as well as the strength of the argument.
Then I move to slides with screenshots from published op-eds, which I’ve labelled so students have concrete examples of headlines, subheads, bylines, captions, and image credits, in addition to how these elements are laid out in a published piece. Because op-ed headlines are quite different from the titles they’re used to writing, I have students look through the examples and describe to me what’s distinctive about the headline of an op-ed in comparison to the title of an academic essay.
Finally, we talk about the “meat” of the op-ed: the hook, the argument, the points used to support it, the counterargument, and the call to action. Again, our discussion is centered around the examples they’ve read. This is where that not-so-exemplary op-ed you chose really comes in handy. I’ve found that the key is to have students not only articulate why a specific aspect of an op-ed isn’t particularly strong, but also to brainstorm out loud what the writer or editor might have done to improve it. You should have a few ideas ready here in case conversation stalls, but in my experience, students readily participate in these brainstorming exercises.
Workshopping Ideas for the Op-Ed
About one week before the op-ed is due, I dedicate a class session to workshopping students’ ideas for their op-eds. At this point, I expect them to have done the bulk of the research for their piece. At home, they complete an op-ed planning worksheet, attached just below, which asks them to brainstorm ideas for the different parts of their op-ed, including the headline, subhead, argument, counter-argument, and walk-off.
In class, I put students into small groups—three people per group is ideal. All the classrooms I’ve worked in have had ample whiteboard space, so I situate the groups where each has their own stretch of whiteboard to work on and a few different colored markers. Large sheets of paper would also work.
I instruct groups to dedicate 15-20 minutes per person, using a timer. When it’s their turn, each student writes their argument on the board, and their group members provide feedback and suggestions based on some guiding questions: Is the argument interesting? Concise? Could a broad audience understand it? I walk around the room modelling how they can help one another, taking advantage of the white board to move pieces of the argument around, erase words, rephrase parts, list possible synonyms for ambiguous words or jargon, etc. Working toward a compelling, well-stated argument usually takes most of their allotted time slot, but I tell students that in whatever time is left they can solicit help from their group on any other aspect of the op-ed: maybe they’re struggling to come up with a logical counterargument, or they want feedback on their hook.
In my courses, these workshopping sessions have been lively and dynamic. Students—even the ones who say that they usually hate peer-review work—have told me how productive they have found them. Most students leave class that day with a good argument for their op-ed, and everyone benefits from working together to devise innovative anthropological responses to pressing issues.
Though working in a new genre can be intimidating, if your experience is anything like mine, this assignment will quickly become a favorite for both you and your students. Working on an op-ed empowers students to research carefully, think creatively, and write confidently about an issue that genuinely matters to them. My students have written pieces correcting tourist fantasies that frame the Pacific Islands as an “untouched paradise;” advocating for hallucinogenic substances as frontline treatments for depression; and drawing attention to the consequences of the news media’s frequent invocation of a “border crisis” at the Mexico-U.S. border. Reading their final op-eds is genuinely inspiring, affirming the value of public scholarship in the work of social change.
Washington Post Staff. 2022. “The Washington Post Guide to Writing an Opinion Article.” The Washington Post, June 23.
Martin, Marlaina. 2022. “Teaching SAPIENS: Centering Access and Relevance in Anthropological Education.” Teaching Tools, Fieldsights, October 11.
Mariner, Kathryn A. 2018. “Teaching as Activism: The Educational Intervention Project as a Tool of Transformation.” Teaching Tools, Fieldsights, March 14.
Jenks, Angela. 2022. “Archives at the Margins: Toward a Liberatory Pedagogy in Anthropology.” Cultural Anthropology 37, no. 3: 387–94.
Duke University Communications. n.d. “Writing Effective Op-Eds.” Accessed June 30, 2023.
Frelier, Jocelyn. 2022. “How Public Scholarship Assignments Benefit Undergraduates.” Inside Higher Ed, June 21.
Shipley, David. 2004. “And Now a Word From Op-Ed.” The New York Times, February 1.
The Op-Ed Project. n.d. “Op-Ed Writing: Tips and Tricks.” Accessed July 7, 2023.
Jusionyte, Ieva. 2019. “Fractures, Trauma, Amputations: What Medics See When They Rescue Migrants at the Border.” Los Angeles Times, February 17.
Jacoby, Karl. 2020. “Border Patrol’s Brute Power in Portland is the Norm.” Los Angeles Times, July 22.
Dumes, Abigail A. 2022. “What Long Covid Shows Us About the Limits of Medicine.” The New York Times, March 17.