Remote but local: Public Writing Initiative pilots online resources

September 10, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Thousands of Penn State students are taking writing courses such as English 15 and 202 online this semester. But that doesn’t mean they can’t tap into the rich communicative resources of the local community, which have been channeled into brick-and-mortar classrooms for decades by the Public Writing Initiative (PWI). Now the PWI is developing ways to bring the learning opportunities afforded by its guest speakers and commissioned assignments into remotely taught courses.

Guest speakers and podcasts

For many years the PWI has brought local professionals into writing courses to speak to students about the role writing plays in their careers. This academic year, due to the ongoing pandemic, in-person visits by guest speakers are much less feasible.

Enter Curry Kennedy, a doctoral candidate in the Department of English. In Spring 2020, Kennedy approached the PWI with a proposal: he would create a series of podcasts in which he would interview guest speakers from the PWI’s roster. The PWI eagerly assented. In the resulting series, “My Rhetorical Life,” Kennedy speaks to professionals in fields ranging from firefighting to policymaking about why writing matters, targeting an audience of undergraduate writers. Instructors are encouraged to use the podcasts, available on the PWI website, in their courses.

Commissioned assignments

In previous semesters, the PWI has coordinated partnerships between local organizations and writing courses in which students produce materials for the commissioning organization. For example, English 15 students have composed tour materials for the Student Farm and English 30 students have written blog posts for the Mid-State Literacy Council. Participating students usually visit the organization and meet its directors, but in light of the pandemic, the PWI decided to see whether these projects could be run remotely. 

Layli Miron, PWI coordinator, piloted a fully online project over the summer session. In this commissioned assignment, students in Miron’s English 202C course, which was remote and asynchronous, worked in groups to create website prototypes for the Centre County Historical Society’s (CCHS) “Notable Trees of Centre County” project.

Though collaborating solely online proved harder than working together in a classroom, the students persevered. Their websites were enthusiastically received by CCHS Executive Director Mary Sorensen, who noted that the assignment “truly does give us needed support on a project that long been on our list! We greatly appreciate PWI’s involvement and help!”

With this pilot online project an overall success, the PWI is ready to support more remote commissioned assignments. This semester, the PWI is coordinating five partnerships between courses and local organizations — the most so far. According to Miron, previous semesters have averaged one partnership, so the rise in interest points to instructors’ desire to ground their remote courses in the local community, thus helping to enrich the student experience.

About the Public Writing Initiative

The Public Writing Initiative invites instructors across the University who are teaching writing-intensive courses to make use of its resources. In addition, the PWI is recruiting local organizations and businesses that would like to run a commissioned writing assignment. For more information, email

Questions can be directed to Layli Miron, PWI coordinator.

A project of Penn State Learning, the PWI helps students understand the importance of writing across the curriculum in all disciplines and, ultimately, in all careers. Penn State Learning is part of the Penn State Office of Undergraduate Education, the academic administrative unit that provides leadership and coordination for University-wide programs and initiatives in support of undergraduate teaching and learning at Penn State. Learn more about Undergraduate Education at

Last Updated September 10, 2020