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John “Jack” Selzer Talks About The Center for Democratic Deliberation at Penn State University and Their Partnership with Young Scholars in Writing for the 2022 National Undergraduate Essay Contest


Photograph of Jack Seltzer.

John “Jack” Selzer is a Liberal Arts Professor Emeritus of English specializing in Rhetoric and Composition. As a recent member of The Center for Democratic Deliberation Faculty Advisory Board, he studies The Rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement. Jack wrote “Center For Democratic Deliberation Essay Contest Winner Introduction” to introduce Dana Diab, the author of “Bridging the Gap: Black Women in the Civil Rights Movement,” in Vol. 20 of YSW.

The Center for Democratic Deliberation (CDD) at Pennsylvania State University, founded in 2006, “invites scholars and rhetoric, wherever they live, to play together.” As a combination of rhetoric faculty from the Department of English and the Department of Communication, Arts, and Sciences, The CDD serves as a place to “invigorate the thinking of the faculty and graduate students in those two programs” and welcomes other rhetorical thinkers from various departments as well. Jack thinks it is an important center for creating cooperation between departments, attracting sponsors with its mission, and sparking thoughts about interdisciplinary issues.

Jack thinks “undergraduate research is really at the heart of the undergraduate experience; it’s meant to change your mindset. You become an investigator…instead of being told how to do it.” He thinks that many students, when transitioning from high school to college, use outside sources to get their knowledge and instruction. Still, after college, “you’re expected to be an independent researcher” who can learn on their own. “Undergraduate research is designed to encourage that thought process to change you from somebody who just takes in knowledge to somebody who creates it,” which he thinks is also its main benefit. Changing people’s mindsets so they become increasingly curious and independent in their thinking will help contribute to the calling for active and resourceful seekers of knowledge. Additionally, graduates get the “opportunity to show their stuff. They can develop independent projects that they can then show…to indicate that they’re ready for advanced studies or a really fine first job.

When it comes to challenges in undergraduate research, Jack thinks the biggest is that many students have never been asked to do independent work as undergraduates. While they may prove their proficiency on tests and analysis papers, “When have they really been invited to find the answer to a question that they pose themselves to do an authoritative paper on some topic that interests them?” Jack finds that many students are excited about that chance.

Young Scholars in Writing partnered with The CDD for their National Undergraduate Essay Contest in which the winner was given the opportunity to publish their work in Vol. 20. Jack “always invited my undergraduates to aspire to put their work into YSW” when he taught his course on Rhetoric in the Civil Rights Movement. After retiring, Jack wanted to continue the website created with his students from the course over the past twelve years. “I just didn’t want to give that up. I wanted to try to see if other teachers around the country could make use of it. I thought: Well, maybe YSW would be a way of publicizing this website.” This idea led to the collaboration between YSW and The CDD as they were happy to sponsor the essay contest. “The YSW people were so gracious and so wonderful about offering the opportunity for people to submit essays about The Rhetoric in the Civil Rights Movement to YSW. They really picked up on it just great.” He was thrilled with the outcome and pleased to see how much attraction the contest received.

For current undergraduate students, Jack is passionate about the value of learning how to think rhetorically. He thinks it is important to see the world as “a bunch of discourses that they’re trying to respond to, add to, think about, analyze, and so on; and The Rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement is a great way to train minds to think in that way.” He wants to promote the Civil Rights Movement as a topic of scrutiny for rhetoric for undergraduate research and scholarship more broadly. “It’s a great topic for understanding America” and for understanding “my community and the larger communities that I belong to, and students seem to like that approach as well.”


This post was written by Alex Merritt.