Valparaiso University professor shifts classroom learning to real-world practice during pandemic

Valparaiso University professor shifts classroom learning to real-world practice during pandemic

When Valparaiso University (VU) students left for spring break, they didn’t realize they wouldn’t be returning for the rest of the spring semester. With the COVID-19 pandemic closing university campuses to students, staff and visitors, professors and students had to adapt quickly. Many were left wondering how they would take what they learned in the classroom and practice it in the real world. Those in Richard Sévère’s professional writing course found a new and creative way to put theory into practice as Sévère was able to think quickly and restructure the class’ final project to provide students with real-time, real-world experience.

“I wanted to come up with a different way the students could do this assignment that would be rewarding and get them to think about the current situation we are in and how to work through that,” said Sévère, Associate Professor of English. “I especially wanted to focus on the ideas of being innovative, thinking about leadership, and using their critical thinking.”

While Sévère’s professional writing course typically works with local non-profits for their end-of-year project, with students spread across the country, he decided to use the pandemic as a learning opportunity. 

“With the pandemic, I gave the students two options: they could imagine themself as a CEO of a fundraising company for a study-abroad program, or they could choose a local organization within their own neighborhood and write various documents about how that company would be handling the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

Those who chose to go the local business route were instructed to create four professional writing samples, using the skills they learned in the classroom. The first document was a memo to the company’s staff on what they would do to keep business going, keep staff employed and safe, etc. The second sample was a press release to the community on how the company was handling the pandemic. Third, the students created a brochure to better explain the new procedures being put into place. The fourth piece was a visual image, with no more than eight words, that could be used as a billboard, Facebook ad, or as any other marketing piece. 

“The idea was to give them real-time experience. Companies are having these conversations with their employees and thinking about ways to be innovative,” Sévère said. “You never know in your career when you will have one thing planned and something else happens, so how do you deal with that? How do you prepare yourself for that and get consensus from other people and work through it?”

Sévère had the students imagine themselves as the leaders within the business for a reason: to continue the VU mission of preparing future leaders.

“This project certainly aligns with the institute’s mission of preparing students to lead in society and church,” he said. “This is one of the ways students can think about that. Whenever I’m assigning anything, I always put them in the leadership position to give them the sense that we’re molding and teaching students to hone their leadership skills as we’re encouraging them to go out and be leaders.” 

Throughout the project, Sévère also encouraged students to use this opportunity to think creatively. 

“I wanted to see how they would think on their toes, think creatively, and come up with a good concept. I didn’t care how far-fetched the ideas were as this was the time to be far-fetched. I told them to go for it and think out of the box,” Sévère said. “What new and innovative way could you come up with to help the company stay afloat? What new thing can you come up with that they’re not already doing? Students came up with some really cool ideas.”

With their creativity allowed free-reign, ideas such as food boats, safe boxes around town for food delivery, and even drone delivery came to light. Encouraging this thinking was Sévère’s way of preparing students for future success. 

“I’m hoping that the information they learned is something they can take into the professional world and if we’re ever in this situation again, they have tools to utilize,” he said. “This project forced them to think about what can be new, innovative, creative, and different. I think that critical thinking is what people are going to need to be competitive over the next few years in the job market. I really want my students to be thinking about what they can do to stand out, be competitive, and be ahead of the game. It might not seem like it now but hopefully, this project will do that.” 

For Sévère, this project was an excellent way to show students that writing can be an effective and useful tool used to help the community. 

“Instead of dwelling on the tragedy of it all, I wanted to use this moment to think about writing, our role as leaders, and the ways writing and rhetoric can be useful during this time,” he said. “I wanted the students to continue to have a way to think about themselves as part of the community around them and the people in those communities, and how an effective career writing can help with that.”

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