This week I am teaching students at the University of Groningen about writing an op-ed, which is a short, newsy opinion piece. It’s a great assignment for several reasons: first, the opinion pages are usually one of the best-read sections of any publication and second, op-eds are based on personal, real-world experiences but they must contain a reasoned argument.
I find this a welcome and healthy antidote to rants, those off-the-cuff, one-sided outbursts that populate the internet. Online, the loudest voices often get the most attention, drowning out more nuanced arguments, and worse, blurring the lines between fact and opinion.
Throughout the years, I’ve noticed that students are initially hesitant to write what they really think on the page. They’ve grown up being told they should be sensitive, inclusive and encouraging towards others—all good—but university is the place to take risks, especially intellectual ones. Worrying about potentially offending someone puts them in an impossible loop and it prevents them from speaking freely.
Op-eds include facts as much as opinion; you can say what you think, what lies close to your heart, but it must be substantiated. Considering all the finger pointing that has become oh so 2023, this is a good thing. This is why students ultimately find this kind of writing liberating and fun—they already have opinions, now they’re learning how to finesse them for a wider audience, so they can be heard.
I tell students have you ever heard someone say that there are three sides to every story? There's the side you hear from your best friend. Then there's the side you hear from your enemy. And then, of course, there's the truth, which lies in between. This is the purpose op-eds serve. They show how there are billions of different points of view and that everyone has something valid to say; they also underline how important it is to hear things you don’t like or don’t know much about in order to reach fresh conclusions.