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 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).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

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.