Week Seven: Editing in The Liberal Arts and Unlikely to Become Obsolete

Image credit to Dr. John Fea, Stonybrook University Department of History.

Image credit to Dr. John Fea, Stonybrook University Department of History.

Despite all the pedagogical searching I’ve done in past posts, it just occurred to me this week that I, and perhaps many other editing teachers, make the assumption that editing is a skill students need to learn while studying at a university and any university, for that matter. The assumption isn’t helpful when one engages in discussion with other writing teachers, though, particularly those who think editing an unnecessary skill for students pursuing a liberal arts education, like our students at TCU. Some writing teachers also think the skill of editing will soon become obsolete in the age of autocorrect technology and others think editing encourages a reductive, product-pedagogy approach to teaching writing.

To those arguing that editing classes aren’t necessary because editing is an almost trade-like skill, not an art form to be studied and held in high regard as, say, the study of the British literature canon or the history of French Nouveau Art, I want to acknowledge that those concerns are logical. A liberal arts education comes with a certain set of values attached and instructors know this reality to be true, but do the students enrolling in liberal arts universities fully understand this reality? We might also question how best to react when a demand for more editing classes is acknowledged, most likely because more students want to work in the fields of editing and publishing, not academia. Do we refuse the requests of those students? Do we ask them to accept that a certain career path in editing that was marketed to them isn’t actually attainable to them with an English degree? Do we nudge liberal arts students to careers in academia? I hope not. Given my pedagogical values, I’d attempt to adapt to the needs of my learners in any situation, acknowledging if and when the academic vision of my institution furthers or hinders their needs. If I have a student who is enrolled at a liberal arts institution but wants editing experience, I’m not inclined to ignore this need. I’m inclined to be responsive. So I put this question to teachers: Is there a pedagogical disconnect between your students’ learning needs and those set forth in your university’s mission? If so, which set of needs will you support? Have you considered how this disconnect might affect writing instruction more than we realize?

To those of the opinion that the skill of editing will soon become obsolete due to the automation of spelling and grammar correction technologies, I ask you to tab over in your browser to a crassly-titled site, F You, Auto Correct. The purpose of the site is simple, its audience mainstream, but the “germs attacking” becomes “germans attacking” and the puppies are accidentally taken to the “boilers” instead of the “groomers,” remind us that editing technologies are just as prone to error as the humans who create them. At some point, they will err. When they do, we can only hope that individual editing skills will be sufficient for correction, and that a competent, well-trained copyeditor at Microsoft is already working to fix the problem. Here we see technological determinism, a theory unique to the rapidly growing discipline of the digital humanities, rear its ugly head and remind us that overreliance on technology does all of us a disservice.

Finally, to those committed to process pedagogy, your concerns are valid, but I want to spend some time with John Bryant, a writing scholar who reminds us we shouldn’t run to any extreme on a pedagogical spectrum. On this spectrum, we might see product approaches to teaching composition on the right and distanced from process approaches farther down on the left, the latter being more holistic and pedagogically effective than the former (click here for a more detailed explanation of these pedagogies). In his 2009 article, “Editing is Learning,” Bryant presents an idea that disrupts that spectrum, by bringing opposite ends closer together with the claim that superficial errors and corrections can be of great benefit to the developing writer (126). As part of his defense, Bryant presents a practical example from when an editor felt his reputation hinged on an article publication that was edited poorly, alerting us to the very real consequences of not teaching editing (127). “Editing,” he goes on to say, “is a search for discourse; it is more seminar than lecture” (Bryant 127). He goes on to posit that when students are fully engaged and invested in learning editing, the results are a better “finished product” and that editing learning is often associated with as well as a richer development of the writer’s process as “communal” and connected to the processes of other editors and writers (Bryant 127). So while it’s easy to jump on the process bandwagon, it’s equally easy to get carried too far in the process direction and forget that skills like editing have their value, too.

 

Week Six: Practically Speaking for Practical Editing

Earlier this week, I put a call out to an academic community listserv; I asked:

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 10.37.59 AM

I received six or seven responses. Some pointed me toward other listservs, databases like CompPile, and one from my undergraduate research mentor, Dr. Jane Greer, pointed me toward the same texts we’re having our students read for this class, Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook and Carol Fisher Saller’s The Subversive Copyeditor.

Dr. Greer’s gives her editing students plenty of practical experience in the classroom because they spend the summer semester editing Young Scholars in Writing (YSW), an undergraduate research journal in rhetoric and writing studies. I never took this class, but conversations with students who did and my own experiences as a contributing author tell me that the students probably gained a lot of practical experience, sending reviews and queries to authors, consulting fellow editors, and most importantly, seeing their hard work represented in print and electronic form.

Another interesting response came from an editing professor at California Lutheran University. She explained how her students had gone on to work for a press after taking her editing course. She asked if we did the same at TCU. Though I’m less familiar with the editing partnerships we’ve established between the English department and the Fort Worth community, I do know that a few of our students have interned at TCU Press, descant magazine, and eleven40seven journal. At least one of our students works in TCU’s Writing Center and has enjoyed learning how to edit as well as how to give developmental feedback while working as a writing consultant.

What I didn’t garner from the listserv correspondences was a robust list of editing exercises and activities to engage editing students in the practice of editing. I sent several follow-up emails inquiring as to whether my responders had any such activities because I keep wondering how to make time spent in class both practical and enjoyable, switching it up whenever possible (see Week Four: Keeping Things Interesting). The challenge is that switching it up requires changing activities, but the one we need to develop—the one editors spend most of their time doing—is what we’ve been doing: sit, edit, query, edit. Repeat.

Okay, it’s more complicated than that, but to an outsider or someone new to the practice, editing might seem incredibly boring and mundane, almost “trade-like.” Some scholars might see the mundanity of this practice as threatening to the creative and expressive potential of the liberal arts student. Certainly, the work involved in editing is hardly glamorous, and at times it’s just plain hard. Still, it’s useful work and someone has to do it. In the future, good copyeditors might be in even higher demand. Ohio University’s Editing and Education Foundation has held conferences for leaders in the editing field to discuss the direction this profession is taking and how to meet challenges presented by this new direction, and the general consensus from this organization seems to be that copyeditors will continue to find work, so long as they are equipped with the skills and practical experiences needed to edit for a new generation of media and its consumers.

Despite cries of woe from the liberal arts, I think TCU students benefit tremendously from the practical experience gained in our class and many of those who’ve had internships seem to excel in the class. I have no surefire answer to the keeping-things-interesting problem, but it does assure me that the practical editing exercises we do in class aren’t facilitated in vain. One cannot deny the benefits to students and the direct transfer of skills from classroom to copy desk that such exercises provide. I’ll be interested to see if any of the listserv responders I followed up with will offer activities they use in the classroom. If any editors, editing teachers, or editing students out there have ideas and a willingness to share, well dear reader(s), you have me as a captive audience.

 

Week Five: Let’s Collaborate

“I’ve learned to look everything up.”

“I’ve learned I’m sometimes mean as an editor.”

“I’ve learned when to make changes and when to leave well enough alone.”

Those three anonymous statements were shared along with 18 others today in class. Before submitting their first manuscript projects for grading, our students were asked to go around the table and share what they had learned in this first unit. This sharing, in my humble opinion, was one of the most important pedagogical moments we’ve had so far in class. It allowed the students to internalize what they’ve learned. By verbalizing their learning to their peers, they were internalizing what lessons they found most helpful, and what lessons from this unit they can carry over in to the next one. Finally, by hearing what their peers learned, I think they became more attuned to how other editors learn to edit, and therefore, how to work with other editors.

That last point, being aware of fellow editors, is a significant learning outcome. In preparing for this course, I hadn’t expected collaborative learning to be of tremendous value. Perhaps I feel this way because every editor I’ve known sits in a cubicle, goes about her or his day quietly, reading documents and occasionally chirping up to read an interesting news update or snort a little at a poorly-worded clause. As a writer, I’ve seen editors work mostly alone, occasionally collaborating when clauses get complicated or puns too plentiful. Until now, it seemed to me that editors can more or less avoid their colleagues until it’s time to pass the manuscript. To students, I would have explained editing as a profession in those terms. I’m now rethinking this assumption for a number of reasons.

Media depictions of uncollaborative editors aren't usually justified.

Media depictions of uncollaborative editors aren’t usually justified.

Two exercises and one quiz into the semester, I find myself encouraging students more and more to seek second opinions. I’ve encouraged some students to take the edits they’ve made to our university’s writing center, where a tutor can not only check for missed errors but also explain her process for editing texts. Some of our students struggle with what seem like basic skills, such as knowing how to spot errors they commonly overlook. How does one remind oneself to check for an error one commonly misses? Make a note. Make a list. Tape it somewhere you see it frequently. It’s a most basic skill to learn; even so, if we weren’t discussing it as a skill, how many instances of overlooking and committing serious errors would occur before our students learned this skill? Would it prevent them from getting a job?

Some of our students have every rule memorized but lack the ability to apply those rules. Again, at this point, collaborative learning becomes more useful. It’s far from helpful to project the image of the cold and distant editor who’s sharp as a whip when it comes to answering any grammatical rule. Doing so perpetuates an unrealistic representation of the field and the human resources available to editors. In my first blog post, “Week One :Let’s Discuss,” I argued that we should teach our students to discuss their processes more often, to consult one another. If we encourage this approach in the classroom, perhaps it will take effect in the workforce. If we become more collaborative, perhaps we will make the editing process less individualistic and less fatiguing, and then the manuscripts will be better, too.

 

Week Four: Keeping Things Interesting

Most of my experience in editing and publishing has been on the writing side of the field. It hasn’t required me to embark on the day-in, day-out journey of multiple passes through a manuscript. I’ve edited for New Letters Magazine and for the 10th edition of Business and Administrative Communication, but I’ve been spared the process of editing at a heavy level, using multiple passes. While I focus in on details fairly well—perhaps to a fault, like most writers and editors—I find light- to medium-level copyediting challenging enough.

I’m noticing this fault in the students now. As excited as they were in week one to set their pens to a manuscript riddled with errors, that excitement has waned a bit. When asked which editing exercise activity they would like to do this morning, everyone seemed hesitant to respond. They can hardly be blamed for this, I think, because it is exhausting work. A Google search for “editing fatigue” and “editor’s fatigue” yields some chatter on the online front, but, surprisingly, all the chatter is just that, brief spats of frustration and cries for validation. I found no solutions, really, other than one suggestion from a business journalism editor at Arizona State University who claims “there is no hope,” aside from hiring smart copyeditors, followed by a brief lamentation on the state of hiring in the copyediting field.

I have a hard time accepting that there is no solution to a problem.

In talking with a student this week, we strategized some ways to make our passes through a manuscript more purposeful, how to order them, and how to keep focused through each pass. Such an approach is far from a cure-all solution, I know, but I think that strategizing and the mindfulness component, i.e., being aware of fatigue and how to edit to prevent it, is useful.

I’ll continue to think about this issue; however, I’m more interested in how to keep the teaching of editing interesting. If the teaching is interesting, perhaps the learned, independent process that follows will also be more interesting, right?

At present, I’m thinking through how to revise a set of past slides to be used in an upcoming week. I thought a simple Prezi might spice things up, but it’s hard to study from a Prezi or convince students to download a Prezi in slide form. I returned to the idea of PowerPoint, the presentation software our slides are in, and the possibility of animating those slides for a more dynamic, almost movie-like effect. Although envisioning and designing a good animation is not overwhelmingly difficult or time-consuming, student retrieval of information from those slides would be. That’s not to say that we want all our students to have all the information in slide form. Certainly, the existing slides give a helpful outline and key definitions for study outside of class. But what’s retrieved after class should be just enough information to recall the lecture, and it shouldn’t be jumbled with overlapping animations arranged for effect, not reading.

 

From NspireD2's "Say no to powerpoint-as-usual."

From NspireD2’s “Say no to powerpoint-as-usual.”

I returned to the Presentation Zen trifecta of “Simple, Beautiful, Fun,” but I’m challenged to think of how I can make slides more simple when they’re already as simple as they can be. Perhaps the other tenets of beautiful and fun can be embraced more. (Dr. Leverenz does have a good deal of editing jokes in the form of cartoons.) Beautiful I might have to think on though. I’m also going to continue to think about why this presentation approach that is so effective in teaching doesn’t serve outside study quite as well.

Making presentation materials of teaching more engaging is just one of several other approaches to making learning about editing more interesting. I’m going to continue to grapple with this issue, and my hope is that next week I might connect to other editing teachers in our field to query their teaching methods and what resources they’ve liked best.