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The Role of Audience in Quantitative Writing

Julian Westerhout, Carleton College
Author Profile
This material was developed as part of the Carleton Teaching Activity Collection and is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project

Summary

This workshop is designed to start students thinking about the role of audience in purposeful quantitative writing. They first read a quantitative article from a leading political science journal, and then summarize that article assuming one of two assigned personas—that of a senatorial staffer or that of a newspaper reporter. This summary is accompanied by a short written reflection on the exercise. In a subsequent class period the students discuss their experience in small groups.

Learning Goals

Students should understand some of the constraints writing for different audiences places on an author.

Students should learn how to read, understand, and re-express quantitative writing.

Students should gain a better understanding of their dual roles as consumers and producers of quantitative material..

Context for Use

This workshop is used in a class on methods in political science. The students are almost all recently declared majors who are learning about the different research approaches in the discipline in addition to learning how to conduct and present their own research.

In the course of the term, this workshop takes place when students are beginning to learn some of the tools used in quantitative analysis. It has several goals—to provide students an opportunity to think about how audience makes a difference in how quantitative work is presented, and to contemplate what that means not only in terms of their own work, but also in their roles as consumers of quantitative material, both in and out of the classroom setting.

Description and Teaching Materials

The syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 216kB Jun2 06) for the class in pdf format.

The following text is the assignment sheet used for this workshop:

The way a piece of written work is structured and framed depends in part upon its intended audience. For example, consider how an article written for The Carletonian might be different from a summary on the same topic written for a corporate CEO, or from a research paper on the topic that you plan to revise as a comps project, or a research paper you plan on submitting for publication or presenting at a conference.

These hypothetical pieces of written work would clearly be different, but how? What difference does audience make? What sorts of constraints do the different intended audiences listed above imply? What sort of unique opportunities might each present that the others do not?

Read the following article:

Jim Granato, Ronald Inglehart and David Leblang (1996) The Effects of Cultural Values on Economic Development: Theory, Hypotheses, and Some Empirical Tests. American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 40, No. 3 pp. 607-631 (J-Stor). (Note: Uses World Value Survey Data)

This was published in one of the leading political science journals in the United States. This article makes extensive use of quantitative data in support of its authors' thesis. Consider how its publication in AJPS shaped how it is written.

Writing assignment

If you are in group A, you are to assume that you are a reporter for the Washington Post, and have been assigned to write a short article on the topic using the AJPS article as your primary source.

If you are in group B, you are to assume that you are a staff policy advisor for a U.S. Senator, and have been assigned to write a short executive summary on the topic using the AJPS article as your primary source.

In both cases, you need not do any primary research beyond the AJPS article, but you will find it helpful to find 2-3 additional sources using Lexis-Nexis for more background on the issue.

Your article or summary will be 2 pages, typed, double-spaced. In addition to this piece, you will prepare a 1-2 page typed, double-spaced reflection on what you've done. What are the substantive differences between the APSR article and your piece? Why? In what way did your presentation of the data differ? What difference do these changes make?

The article/summary and the reflection piece are each worth 50 points. Very good work will include an article/summary that is clear and that successfully conveys the core argument of the original AJPS article, and a reflection piece that demonstrates an understanding of the choices and tradeoffs you've made in adapting the material of the AJPS article to a much shorter piece intended for a different audience.

In-class discussion

We will discuss the process you went through in writing your articles/summaries in class next week. Consider how audience matters in making an argument supported by quantitative data, and consider how, as a consumer of information, your perception and consideration of such work changes (or doesn't) and why (or why not) depending upon intended audience and the techniques used by authors in order to best meet their goal of conveying their message.

Teaching Notes and Tips

During the post-assignment group discussions, it became evident that many students had not previously considered the role of audience in quantitative writing. A number of questions arose concerning their dual roles as producers and consumers of information, and the ethical issues that might be involved in choosing to emphasize particular elements of research over others. Being sure to include members from each assignment group in each discussion group provided an opportunity for them to see how the different roles that they had assumed for the assignment led them to frame the material in different ways.

Assessment

The assignment included a short written summary of their reaction to the assignment—how they had approached it, and some of the issues it raised for them. Those, in combination with listening in to the post-assignment group discussions, allowed for assessment of the efficacy of the assignment.

References and Resources