Week Eleven: Past the Curve, Hitting the Learning Stride

In week eleven of sixteen, our students are scoring better on exercises and quizzes. Their favorite grammar rules have been committed to memory and offered in confidence during class discussion. But perhaps most importantly, they’re beginning to approach manuscripts and style sheets with a sense of editorial authority.

Remember in week eight when we asked “Can editing be taught?” The most successful and the most trying types of students were discussed, and I couldn’t give a definitive answer of yes or no. I still can’t, but I can, however, analyze what’s going on with most students who linger in the middle.

The middle of the curve that most students rest at is far from a resting point. Consider the two images that follow.

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When we have a new concept to learn, we aim for mastery on the part of all students. We want that bell curve to resemble another shape that shows improvement, one that’s top heavy. But this is rarely the case. With our grade distribution visualized, the usual bell rings out in a somewhat taunting way. Remember, however, that when a new concept is learned, the shape should shift, not change. Students haven’t been given an opportunity to demonstrate a new level of mastery on the recently-learned concept. We shouldn’t be disheartened.

I’m reminded now, almost three-fourths of the way through this semester, that recognizing this shift is a necessary buffer to the stress of being a good teacher. Even when our students are beginning to change the shape of our curve with higher scores, we need to be reminded that the one-dimensionality of the bell curve is a seductive simplification of the learning outcomes we strive to meet. Slow down around the curve and pay attention to what’s really going on.

Consider the curve of learning throughout the semester as a whole. It’s certainly nuanced with changing shapes and continual shifts, but if we flatten that to understand the level of difficulty in learning our students face throughout the semester we can better support their learning successes and challenges.

First, let me clarify that I’m not arguing for a reductive or simplified approach to planning one’s semester. Planning for surprises and hurdles is encouraged, but like the learning curve in each assignment we should expect our editing classes to feel more challenged by certain learning tasks, whereas others will come more easily. Dr. Leverenz has explained how she anticipates the trajectory of learning for the semester. To paraphrase her, we start students on a challenging but approachable series of editing exercises, introductory material for first-unit quizzes, and a project that is challenging but not in an overwhelming way. Editing mainstream publications was the focus of that first unit, whereas the most difficult of the three units for this semester, the one on academic publishing, challenged students the most but they were allowed a good deal of time and exposure to academic editing, given exercises, shown how to write query letters, and consult their fellow editors so that they had plenty of support and practice time. Finally, the third unit’s project was to edit web pages for a real client, our New Media Writing Studio here at TCU. In this unit our students are learning to hit a stride. Clearly, the challenges they found so distressing in the second unit have made this third one a breeze and their familiarity with the web makes the content for editing a bit more interesting.

So you see, there’s another curve. We shifted the first one a bit and that may have something to do with the second curve (the learning trajectory curve of our semester). The trajectory re-instills a sense of confidence in students. We start with a project of medium challenge, fully immerse students in learning about editing with a difficult manuscript, and now we’re back down to that medium-level, letting them demonstrate to us that the bell curve is in fact shifting.

Maybe it just needed a little regressing to gain some steam? A toy car has to be pulled back so it can launch forward. Maybe our semesters should always be structured this way. The norm seems to be a culmination of the most challenging projects and exercises at the end of a course, when mastery is to be complete. But could we train better editors with this curved trajectory?

Our grades suggest so. Let’s hope these good strides continue.

Week Ten: Changeover

In 2012, conversational use of hopefully was approved.

In 2013, underway was embraced with little to no clamor.

In 2014, over won’t be quite as lucky.Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 5.24.27 PM

My dear friend, and former editor at The Kansas City Star, jokingly posted a news story to Facebook about the AP Stylebook editors’ decision to accept over in describing excessive numerical amounts as opposed to the longstanding favorite, more than. The responses were quick-witted and cranky. I’d expect nothing less from the most dedicated editor and writer types.

The tweets came even quicker. Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 5.20.57 PM

A frustrated insider sent a tongue-in-cheek tweet at 1:19 pm on Thursday, and by the time it was reprinted in this Poynter story at 5:52 p.m. it had been retweeted 332 times and favorited by 118 Twitter users.

For a word that’s used so commonly in conversation, why do we care so much when it’s replaced in writing?

It’s not just editors who care. Teachers care, too. After all, changes at AP will inevitably ripple out to other style manuals and set a new norm in the classroom. One teacher expressed her disagreement with the change in the comments section of the Poynter article.

 

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A Ms. Bridget Grogan said: “Doesn’t fly with me. I will continue to teach my students to use “more than”. Common usage is the excuse? A lot of people are doing it wrong, so we will too? Sigh…”

Before indulging your urge to edit what Grogan wrote, think about why she might have written it. Is this preservation of language in the best interest of her students? She seems to think so.

In response to what she wrote, another commenter said: “Common usage is not the excuse, it is what dictates the rule. …Are you going to continue to teach your students those rules? Of course not. Because that’s no longer how we USE the language.”

For editing teachers, where do your pedagogical beliefs lie? The rules of usage or the rules language users create? From reading The Copyeditor’s Handbook, our students learned that this dispute is the old descriptivists vs. prescriptivists debate. The descriptivist, according to John Updike, “proposes no ideal of clarity in language or, beyond that, of grace, which might serve as an instrument of discrimination,” whereas the prescriptivists hold tight and fast to the artificiality of rules, which are crafted by “language mavens” from “bits of folklore” but “make no sense on any level” (Einsohn 338).

The AP Stylebook editors’ announcement of usage changes for three years running gives more ethos to the descriptivist camp, and I suspect that modern editing students will prefer to descriptivism. I wrapped up class by showing the Poynter news story on the projector board, a sort of parting thought. The students laughed. Apparently, they find the change unworthy of so much clamor.

Or perhaps, they noticed the apocalyptic comments at the bottom stating that this is over most can bear.

 

Week Eight: “Can Editing be Taught?”

“Can editing be taught?”

That was the question Dr. Leverenz posed to me during our weekly meeting. It’s a question we’ve touched on before and one we keep returning to. In this post, I want to sketch out my initial thoughts at this mid-semester point. I’ll return to this reflection at the end of the semester, too, to see if any of my opinions have changed.

The question comes up in conversation usually after we finish scoring exercises and quizzes. Why? Because the distribution of scores appears somewhat unchanged. We teach with the intention of improving scores. So if a student gets a 15 out of 20 on his or her first exercise assignment, an average 75%, and then an 18 out of 20 on his or her second exercise, a 90%, we feel content with seeing this improvement.

More often than not, we see the distribution of scores as remaining static. Enter the bell curve (and check out the series of visualizations representing bell curves instructors have used).

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What we want to see is the shift in scores. Even when this happens, the differentials are maintained. A select few might struggle in the low C, D, or F range. Most will float around somewhere in the middle range of C’s and B’s, and a few will shine. Those that shine usually show themselves early on. They possessed editing skills before they came to class and when they put in a respectable amount of hard work, they polish off their existing skills, becoming just a bit shinier.

Those in the middle may improve somewhat; they shift back and forth as they learn new concepts, sometimes struggling, sometimes gaining. Finally, some seem to struggle from the beginning. These are the ones I tend to worry about the most. Sometimes what they need as learners is unclear to us and no clearer to them. We invest a lot of energy in trying to understand why they’re struggling with a concept and what learning approach will solve the problem. But more often than not, we spend a semester engaging in trial-error teaching, investigating a number of learning strategies but never feeling like we fully helped. This point brings us back to the original question. Can editing be taught?

Can editing be taught to a student who struggles from beginning to end? Is editing just one of those special talents that some students have and others don’t? Will there always be a distinction between the have’s and the have-not’s? If so, how does this issue change our teaching? Are we responsible for making this learning curve clear to students so that we don’t perpetuate unrealistic ideas about a future in editing? Or do we persist in educating the have’s and the have-not’s equally, albeit with learning modifications to assist each as we see fit.

At this point, I have no answers for which I’d argue strongly. I expect the remaining eight weeks will influence my opinions in ways I can’t yet know, but for now I am struck by two important considerations. Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 9.56.00 AM

First, it’s hard to see a shift toward improvement on a particular learning concept when the concept has changed. If we see average performance on a punctuation exercise, average to poor performance on a citation-style exercise that follows shouldn’t bring about a shift. A new concept is to be learned; we haven’t given the students an opportunity to demonstrate a new level of mastery on the last concept, and thus, we shouldn’t feel disheartened.Image

Second, I’m of a split pedagogical mind in regards to “reality checking” students. On the one side, I know that I don’t have the heart to turn away any student who wants to learn any concept, particularly ones determined to make it in editing. On the other side, it breaks that same heart to think that one of my students might struggle in the workforce or even fail to launch into her or his desired profession because he or she was on the unfortunate end of a learning curve and I didn’t have the heart to tell that student may not be able to shift forward with the rest.

The easy thing to do is to help as much as possible, let the student believe she or he is on the way to becoming a skilled editor, and let oneself assume that’s what happened. The responsible thing to do is to address the student’s position on the learning curve in relation to 1.) the rest of the class, 2.) the profession, and 3.) that student’s future learning goals. Here are just a few questions and suggestions to use as talking points:

1. “Based on your grade in the class, let’s look at the distribution of scores to better understand how we can improve your learning experience.”

2. “Based on what I know about the profession, I think you need to hone these skills: X, Y, and Z. Do you think that’s reasonable for you? What do you know about yourself as a learner that might make learning these skills difficult? What has come easily for you? Can we step back and inventory all your skills so we can determine if this is the best profession for you to be entering? Even if it turns out that it isn’t, we could discuss your strongest skills and what related professions those skills would be of the greatest service to.”

3. “Based on your scores and the feedback you’ve been given by me, what do you think you still need to learn in editing? What’s clicking and what are you challenged to understand? Are there any personal factors that are holding you back from succeeding in this course? I ask because I want you to think about your future and whether developing editing skills is best for you in the long run or if your time might be better spent developing other skills, ones you already know you’re good at.”

Having these conversations will be hard, no doubt, but if we don’t have these conversations we do our students a disservice.

And perhaps we do a disservice to our future students, too. If we’re brave enough to address these learning issues, then in turn we can learn more about how to accommodate struggling editing students in the future.