Prof. Ben Schiff

On requiring students to write memos: "For many students, writing short is harder than writing long - but I believe it to be a valuable skill to add to the arsenal of writing styles that we promote here at Oberlin."


Before I came to Oberlin, I worked for a year in the Non-Proliferation Bureau of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), a small agency housed in the Department of State building that has since been absorbed by State. I was one of many contributors to the paper flow of policy-making. Memoranda were circulated and modified by the bureaucratic units involved in whatever the particular policy question might be (in my realm, nuclear export licensing and diplomatic initiatives in efforts to control the spread of nuclear technology) until the bureaus could agree, and then send an agreed memorandum up to decision-making authorities (for instance, to the Director of ACDA or to the Secretary of State).

At Oberlin I discovered that I and many colleagues were working hard to help develop students' writing abilities and in many genres - expository essays, research papers, creative fiction and non-fiction -- but there was little focus on how to convey information and argument in the kind of extremely concise format required by the policy-making process I'd witnessed in Washington.

When I began teaching my War, Weapons, and Arms Control (Politics 227) course, I decided that I'd try to fill the memo gap. For many years now students in that class, which deals with military theories, doctrines, technologies, and the history of war, have been assigned to write a series of memos. The memos are generally limited to two or three pages, with the possibility of appending additional information and argument in attachments. Students receive from me at the beginning of the semester a memorandum on memo format that is intended to serve as both a model and as instruction for how to carry out the assignments.

The memo assignments require that students place themselves into the role of policy advisors, advocates for particular weapons systems, and imagine that they are involved in what I call "memo wars," the process of pushing ideas or recommendations in short, dispassionate, well-documented memoranda.

For many students, writing short is harder than writing long - but I believe it to be a valuable skill to add to the arsenal of writing styles that we promote here at Oberlin. Students can rewrite their memos to perfect them if necessary after the first submissions.

I've found that during the course, students' abilities to write concisely generally improved greatly. Over the years, alumni who gained internships and jobs in non-governmental organizations, businesses and in government, have written back to me glad to be veterans of Politics 227, and reflecting on how, when asked to draft a memo on some topic, they resorted to the format they learned in class, and were up to the challenge.


Submitted by Prof. Ben Schiff

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