The assignment in Jaime Desantiago’s advanced composition and rhetoric class was daunting: select a topic important to The University of Texas at El Paso’s 100-year history and write about it well enough to be published in the online UTEP Encyclopedia.
Desantiago, a senior political science major, was initially discouraged. He browsed through several of the encyclopedia’s entries and decided there was no way he could write at that level. Regardless, he decided to prepare an article about the history of UTEP’s Department of Criminal Justice.
After hours of researching databases, about a dozen rewrites, and at least five visits to the UTEP University Writing Center, his was among the first in the class to be published on the 2-year-old website. It was an eye-opening experience for the El Paso native.
“I learned about perseverance,” Desantiago said after a class at the Undergraduate Learning Center. “I’ve never worked on a paper like that. Now I’m confident in my research skills and I know that the key to writing a good paper is thorough research, revising and editing.”
His words are music to the ears of Theresa Donovan, Ph.D., senior lecturer of English, who is teaching the class, and P.J. Vierra, a rhetoric and composition doctoral student, lecturer and managing editor of the encyclopedia. The pair came up with the idea for the win-win project.
Donovan said she wanted her students to experience a real-world writing assignment that involved research and revision, where the outcome would be shared beyond an audience of one and valued by people for years to come.
She was looking for a fresh way to tie her class’s work to the ongoing Centennial activities. During the spring 2014 semester, Donovan had her students produce mini-documentaries about topics tied to the University.
The suggestion from the Centennial Office was to prepare entries for the UTEP Encyclopedia, an online repository of short, informative stories that deal with the people, places and programs that comprise the University. The encyclopedia has approximately 600 entries.
“I was trying to get students away from producing the standard essays that they submit and forget,” Donovan said, adding that most took the ambitious assignment to heart. “They were enthusiastic about participating in something bigger than themselves. I think they learn more this way.”
Vierra offered Donovan 200 ideas to create or update encyclopedia entries, but she also encouraged students to come up with their own ideas of things they were interested in pursuing such as their Greek fraternity or sorority or a student organization.
Luisa Muniz, a junior multimedia journalism major, said she was excited about the possibility of being published and understood that the assignment would have to be taken seriously and documented thoroughly. Her topic was the late Eleanor Duke, Ph.D., professor emerita of biology and UTEP’s Outstanding Ex in 1974.
Muniz, an El Paso native who grew up in Juárez, said her research into Duke included interviews and lots of reading. She said the experience enhanced her research and writing skills, which will help her as she prepares to attend law school after graduation.
“I knew it had to be done meticulously,” Muniz said.
The original stories were due in early October and were revised once or twice before being sent to Vierra for additional fact-checking, sourcing and editing. When completed, the stories were published online.
Vierra said he was pleased in general with what the students were submitting, especially when it came to their research. The level of diligence did not surprise him because students often try harder on assignments tied to the University.
“The students knew that there was the potential for publication so there was a lot of thought and work in each entry,” he said. “There is a genuine sense of pride.”
The benefits of this effort go far beyond the course, Vierra said. It gives those involved a sense of the level of research and writing needed to produce scholarly work and, by doing something for the University, it strengthens their knowledge and understanding of the campus.
“The entries they are creating will outlive them,” Vierra said. “They are living, breathing documents that will become source material for future researchers. That is the ultimate goal.”
The UTEP Encyclopedia can be found at encyclopedia.utep.edu.
Daniel Perez is a senior writer in UTEP's Office of University Communications.