Public Writing Initiative partners English class with Student Farm

September 04, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — On July 23, a group of students in Miriam Gonzales’s English 15 class visited the Penn State Student Farm to explore how writing might bring attention to environmental concerns surrounding food waste, carbon emissions, and the personal choices we make about sustainability.

Their task — commissioned through the Public Writing Initiative at Penn State Learning — was to create feasible, cost-effective tours for Student Farm workers that present carefully researched information about sustainable farming, food waste and the role that the farm plays in the Penn State ecosystem.

With a little over two weeks, a $75 budget, and the help of their fellow classmates, Gonzales’s English 15 class set out to create six new tours for the Penn State Student Farm on the following topics:

  • Carbon emissions: Which food group is the worst offender?
  • Food waste: Where does it go?
  • Raw versus processed foods
  • Imported versus local foods
  • Organic versus conventional foods
  • Personal choice versus systemic change

Gonzales’s first-year writing class was a summer LEAP (Learning Edge Academic Program) course — paired with Geology 30 — that focused on the intersections between the environment and society. While the Student Farm had paired with University classes in the past, those partnerships were often rooted in the sciences. Students in English 15 offered the ability to craft rhetorically convincing presentations that would bring Student Farm visitors to think critically about their interactions with the environment.

Leslie Pillen, associate director of farm and food systems, reports that students’ work on this commissioned assignment will “provide the program with a useful tool that can be used for tours on the farm as well as taken into classrooms across campus.”

This partnership not only was beneficial to the farm, however, as Gonzales’s students reported that this assignment felt more important than other writing assignments they had completed at Penn State. Some students mentioned that working with a team taught them important life skills. When pressed on what skills they were particularly referencing, students reported that group work usually comes much later in the University’s core curriculum, and this opportunity to evaluate their individual “strengths and weaknesses” in their first semester had already proved to be a valuable experience that would “reach actual people.”

One student reported that “other papers don’t seem to affect anyone else, but this [commissioned assignment] has actual impact.” What mattered most for students of this commissioned assignment, they said, was bringing others to think more deeply about the marks we all leave on the soil beneath our feet.

The Public Writing Initiative (PWI) is a project of Penn State Learning that brings community leaders into undergraduate writing courses to familiarize students with real-world writing opportunities and challenges. The goal of the PWI is to highlight for Penn State students the importance of writing across the curriculum in all fields, disciplines, and ultimately, in all careers. The PWI is staffed by graduate student instructors and assistant teaching professors in the Department of English.

Last Updated September 04, 2019