Week Fourteen: Guest Editors

The introductory slide used in one of our guest editor's presentations.

The introductory slide used in one of our guest editor’s presentations.

A teacher’s advice can go far, but sometimes it has a stopping point. In past classes I’ve taught, I’ve felt like students have heard but not always listened to my advice.

What drives the point home is an outside, credible second opinion from another expert.

This week we sought such an opinion. Twice. Our experts were two editors with two very different backgrounds. We have a third expert coming next Wednesday.

Expert one came on Monday, Mrs. Jamie Birdwell Branson, content copyeditor at Thomson-Reuters.

To start, we went around the room and had each student tell Jamie the most significant editing lesson she or he has learned thus far. Favorite lessons included “look everything up,” avoid “indulg[ing] the desire to change someone’s style,” and “make a style sheet and follow a style sheet.”

Then Jamie told us more about her work. At present, she’s copyediting a lot of tax law documents, showing us example edits she’s made recently, which required different software than the Microsoft Word track changes our students are familiar with using. She also gave a friendly face to editing and a sense of levity to editing info-heavy documents. For example, she laughed about a recent word issue she came across “non cash, which is not a word,” she said, but she explained that the term was being used and she had to look it up. Her laughing about this oddity and all the other odd tasks she takes on as an editor made the work sound more approachable, I think. Or at least, we saw the students laughing enough to suggest so.

Jamie impressed on our students that editing can be “a fulfilling career,” one that’s “tedious, but rewarding.” As a teacher, I related to one interesting comment she made: “I get to celebrate my job in increments.” Personally, I’ve never heard an editor say this, and I’d be curious to ask Jamie if this is because she works on one project at a time or if the sort of editing she does is so intensive and involved that every finished manuscript feels like a victory. Either way, it showed our student that if you enjoy work that has an end point and enjoy celebrating your accomplishments (and who doesn’t?), editing may be the profession for you. Editing can be enjoyable.

That’s not to say that it isn’t hard work that requires learning all along the way. Jamie impressed our students with her extensive resume of work and encouraged students to learn editing software. She’s using XML now, but she said “I wish someone would have told me to learn editing software, like Adobe InDesign.” This remark was helpful because it expresses to students that learning will continue outside the classroom. It will come later in their careers and it can’t be avoided. She added that the best copy editors are flexible,” saying descriptivist editors have a much easier time collaborating than prescriptivist editors.

Finally, I’m glad she stressed the point that “copyeditors are needed everywhere.” From carpet cleaning content writing, which Jamie once did, to tax law documents, anything and everything can be edited and your work trajectory can be for any entity and every experience helps.

Expert two, Joanna Schmidt, is a PhD student in TCU’s English Department with a past life in editing. She has editing degrees and started by introducing our students to her equally interesting work trajectory. She talked about how she looked for internships, took jobs that required her to exercise her editorial authority before she thought she was ready to, and the “quirkiness of working with writers who write about everything you can think of, plus dog biscuits.”

For the most part, she gave our students a lot of practical advice about entering the workforce, where to look for jobs, what types of jobs to look for (developmental vs. managerial copyediting, for instance), and how different companies will pay differently. I’d never thought about why a fiction press might pay less than the far less interesting work required of editing insurance manuals for the Oregon Insurance Licensing Exams, but it’s also not surprising. Perhaps now I’ll be more hesitant to encourage an editing student to pursue a secondary passion for creative writing, especially if she or he is better suited for editing information-heavy documents.

One of the interesting points Joanna ended on was: “Books are not dead; they’re just mutating in form.” She insisted that book publishing has been changing since the beginning of time, and “now we’re in another era of change.” She also had our students read the 2013 Publisher’s Report to get a better sense of just how well print books are selling, albeit with the caveat that e-books are selling well, too.

At the end of Joanna’s presentation, Dr. Leverenz pointed out that both of our two guest speakers from different editorial experiences offered two similar pieces of advice. First, editing students need to advocate for themselves when looking for career opportunities, and to fully embrace the entrepreneurial spirit within (or if it doesn’t exist, to create it). Second, good editors can enact every day, real-world skills on the fly, using good judgment to make smart editorial decisions with as much confidence as possible.

The final incentive for listening to our speaker’s advice? It’s all game for the final quiz, which takes place during their final exam time.

For any interested readers, my next post in a few weeks will be my final reflection on the semester, so stay tuned!


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 Six: Practically Speaking for Practical Editing

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

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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.