Elizabethtown College professors contribute to informed discussion through editorials, op-eds
Online tirades, it seems, have given informed opinion a bad rap.
Though internet trolls will likely continue to abound, there remains a legitimate channel for informed discussion. Op-eds, opinion columns, editorials and blogs are outlets for informed debate and a balanced presentation of researched opinion.
Kyle Kopko, associate professor of political science at Elizabethtown College and director of the Pre-Law Program, said that even the term op-ed is uncomfortable for him when he writes as a scholar. “Op-eds are not really an opinion but a scholarly conclusion,” he said. When political scientists write an editorial, they “translate a body of literature and scholarship so that those who are not political scientists can understand the information and why it’s important.”
Scholarly editorials, he said, make policy statements only if there is solid empirical evidence and the research is well documented.
When editors know you can write for a broader audience and can do so in a clear manner there is a demand.”
In addition to writing editorials, op-eds and blogs, Kopko and co-writer Christopher J. Devine wrote “The VP Advantage,” a book about how running mates influence home-state voting. After its publication, he said, his writing was in demand.
“When editors know you can write for a broader audience and can do so in a clear manner there is a demand,” he said. Kopko has written for or had pieces picked up by LNP, Politico, FiveThirtyEight and Time magazine, among others. He’s written solo and has shared his byline with his co-author and Elizabethtown College students.
Writing, he said, is why tenure exists. “It gives academic freedom; it’s meant to be a protection for researchers to pursue truth at all costs.”
Kopko and other regular editorial writers at Elizabethtown—Fletcher McClellan, April Kelly-Woessner and Rick Fellinger—said they have no hesitation about writing and sharing their thoughts on controversial subjects. Instead, they said, opinion pieces are a responsibility to inform the public of researched opinion.
Opinion pieces—no matter their venue—differ from social media postings by the quality of writing and the depth of research, he said. “They are more structured. There is a beginning, a middle, an ending and research that supports my opinion.”
Fellinger, a former political reporter who still has an interest in government and political issues, said it’s important to get his thoughts and opinions out there, beyond social media. “I prefer it the old fashioned way. I put time and research into it and I’m edited.”
Though he’s careful about how he talks politics in the classroom, Fellinger tells his students that opinion is healthy as long as they are respectful and thoughtful. He said he uses his own columns to show quality editorial writing—how to use supporting quotes, how to use a certain tone. “Good writing is thinking,” he said; “good writing contributes to a marketplace of ideas.”
Kelly-Woessner, professor of political science and department chair, has contributed to this marketplace of ideas for many years. The LNP columnist, who also has been featured in the Washington Post, Inside Higher Ed, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Chronicle of Higher Education, said she sees fake news as an increasing problem.
“Studies show that even trained fact checkers can struggle to tell real news from fake news,” she said. “In an environment filled with misinformation, academics have a social responsibility to fairly and objectively help people understand the issues.”
Kelly-Woessner recently spoke on “The Role of the Public Intellectual in the Era of Fake News, Misinformation and Partisan Bias,” in which she encouraged other Elizabethtown College professors to “go public” with their research findings. She urged them to disseminate knowledge, for the public good, outside of their academic disciplines.
“[My writing] is far more than an opinion,” she said of her editorials. “If professors write from an opinion basis, I think they are just pushing liberal objectives. We must be careful that our arguments are based in evidence.”
The writing also needs to be consumable and understood by the general public. As a scholar, she said, she has a duty to share knowledge with a broader audience, even though some of her readers take offense to what’s being shared. “You can’t please everyone all of the time, but you can certainly make everyone mad,” she said, chuckling. “When that happens, you know you’ve been objective and fair.”
“When I have an idea, I want to share what political science has to say about the topic,” said McClellan, professor of political science, whose interest in politics stems from coming of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s—civil rights, Vietnam, social movements. “I grew up conservative. … My parents talked about politics; there always was a newspaper to read.” This awareness, he said, carried over to college. He flirted with other majors, he said, but politics was always present.
McClellan said he’s been writing editorials for years, especially for the Harrisburg Patriot News, now PennLive. Interest and frequency picked up considerably in 2016 with the presidential election, he noted. “I was contacted by [opinion editor] John Micek who suggested several op-eds about the campaign.” Now, McClellan said, his submissions are more or less biweekly. They are mostly political, he said, but sometimes “wander off into popular culture.”
“I do some pretty deep research. It helps me see what my own views are. What I really think. …,” he said. “Sometimes I surprise myself, starting in one direction but ending up heading in another.”
McClellan said his writing serves two purposes: to inform the public debate and as an outlet to express his views.
At the beginning of each semester, McClellan said, he debriefs his students about his political views, explaining that, first and foremost, he’s a teacher who is interested in their education. “I tell them, it will be hard to hide, from you, my beliefs as a citizen, but it won’t influence how I work with you.” He has been the advisor of the College Democrats for the past 30 years.
Writing op-eds, McClellan said, helped his own scholarship, writing papers that came from research of op-eds. He wonders aloud if op-eds are their own scholarship or a service to the community.