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.

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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.

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.

 

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 Two: Editing for Evaluation

Editing for evaluation, as a phrase, makes for a simple alliteration. As a practice, it’s not so simple.

The first way of editing for evaluation is the intended readership, who evaluates a piece of writing based on how well it’s edited. This is the first audience, the first one that comes to mind for most writers or editors, I imagine. It’s the abstracted audience we’re trying to bring our students closer to, and as Carol Fisher Saller reminds us in The Subversive Copy Editor, our first loyalty is always to the readers (4).

In editing for reader evaluation, the goal is to gain the reader’s trust. Trust of the author’s words comes in part from accuracy of the information presented but also how it’s presented, i.e. enter the presentation’s master of ceremonies, our editor. Correct punctuation, grammar, and even visual consistency in formatting is what she’ll use to establish this trust, presenting the writer as every bit as competent as she or he is when the rules of Standard English haven’t suggested otherwise. Yet, while the editor works most closely with the author to achieve a perfect presentation, the editor is often invisible to readers. This third-party presenter goes unnoticed by most, or at least, that’s the unstated outcome.

I wonder how many readers actually notice an error and linger over it, wondering whether the writer intended it, the editor noticed it, or if a conversation was held in regards to that error. In regards to the last wondering: probably not. I’ve told students in the past that “Readersre lazy…” for lack of a more articulate way of conveying that readers usually don’t invest much time in reading. Fascinating testimony to decreased reading attention online is Farhad Manjoo’s “You Won’t Finish This Article,” which draws on statistics from a recent study on just how far down the page an online reader is willing to go—not to mention the frequency at which a story is shared even though it hasn’t been fully read. The modern audience wants information fast, and if an appears, it probably isn’t going to be pondered. The nature of the error and the editor tied to it won’t be considered. Rather, it will be added to the tally of reasons to trust or not trust what the writer is saying. Save for that residual impression, it is long forgotten.

The second audience evaluating edits is the writer. Considerations of this audience consumed much of our class discussion today as we followed up on the “Characteristics of an Editor” assignment from last week, juxtaposing student observations with an impromptu discussion of the “Characteristics of a Writer.” That conversation related the the two ways of evaluating editing—how the characteristics of both editor and writer needed to be in order to complement one another. A good writer, for example, will be open-minded to feedback, and in turn a good editor will be transparent in her editing. A symbiotic relationship such as this one is ideal, but oftentimes when egos take to the page, the symbiosis becomes problematic. That’s another post entirely, so let’s continue on with our evaluating audiences.

The third audience worth addressing, and the one I’m most interested in at present, is the editor. Editors within a publication interact. Between publications, editors must interact, too, albeit in less direct ways. Today, I’m concerned with the editors in our class. When it comes time for them to be evaluated by us, what’s the most helpful way to provide feedback?

Depending on the editor and the purpose of a particular editing job, editing feedback varies. Most often it’s red ink, copyedit marks, and sometimes it’s a thoughtful letter, query, or conversation. In academia, you might have all of that, plus a letter grade. How do we grade to produce better editors?

I have a few ideas. Personally, I dislike red ink. I’ll talk to Dr. Leverenz about this more; I know some think it trivial, but to me it’s always been important to grade in a traditionally less aggressive ink color. For this first editing exercise, queries and feedback probably aren’t necessary, but a rubric might be. For every opinion I have on rubrics—some favorable, some hardly polite—there’s a student with a different opinion and a different need. I wonder what an editing rubric might look like. How might it be arranged or scaled differently? What are its categories? In rhetoric and composition studies, editing and publishing classes aren’t a frequent point of discussion. Michael Charlton at Missouri Western University shared his course design for 408/508 Technical Editing, and it mirrors a lot of our curricula in this course. From what’s shared, Charlton does in fact use rubrics, but the write-up doesn’t provide any sample rubrics for us to peruse.

I emailed Dr. Charlton, and I certainly hope to receive a response. But at the end of a long search yielding no fruitful results, I’m questioning whether one is needed? Do other editing teachers forego the editing rubric because it’s not used in the real world? Might it set up unrealistic expectations for future feedback? In other words, would I be coddling my students, a group of professionals I want to take seriously, especially since a majority of them are about to graduate and enter the workforce? I’m not sure. I’ll table the discussion until Monday, but I want to continue to think about this question, and this is precisely my reason for creating this site. Not only do I hope to help editors with a repository of references and links, but I want to create a discussion about teaching editing. If we can teach it more effectively, maybe our students can be more effective in the workplace. Good evaluation practices will perpetuate good editing practices.

The First Week: Let’s Discuss

Our first week of Editing and Publishing complete, my mind is brimming with ideas for discussion. I expect nothing less given the fact that 15 weeks remain, but I wonder if the nature of editing processes has something to do with it as well. To be more explicit, in editing there’s often a desire to discuss. We discuss with our colleagues mechanical edits when we’re unsure or when an error is situational enough to entertain the possibility of being an exception to the rule, and we even discuss the lore of different styles.

Case in point, today I told a group of students what a former editor once told me: “In shortening numerical decades, always replace the missing numbers with an apostrophe. For example, 1970s becomes ’70s, 1960s becomes ’60s…” He went on. I still remember.

When I shared that quick anecdote with a group of students, theyt face value and we moved on. When we came together as a class and discussed that particular edit, Dr. Leverenz said that no apostrophe is necessary, i.e. 70s, not ’70s. Naturally, I was embarrassed. I looked it up and I found both. MLA uses the apostrophe, as I have learned, whereas Chicago, the style we’re using for the class, does not.

Returning to this idea of discussion, I explained the difference to a few of the students with whom I discussed the rule. I also discussed it with Dr. Leverenz. Had I been working as a freelance editor, I probably would have discussed the difference with a more senior editor. My point is that discussion is an integral part of effective editing, and yet a secondary, more contradictory point is that it’s not always characteristic of editors to discuss. Thisnnects to one of the discussion questions we posed for next Wednesday’s class. Dr. Leverenz asked, “Based on your reading of The Subversive Copyeditor, what are the traits of a copyeditor?”

Students thought about this as they read the first half of The Subversive Copyeditor by Carol Fisher Saller. She defines the copyeditor stereotype for new or prospective copyeditors, saying: “Our propensity for meticulousness and perfectionism, traits that are important to us… draw us to careers in manuscript editing in the first place. The problem is that there’s no end to the amount of fussing you can do with a manuscript, whereas there’s a limit to the amount of money someone will pay you to do it” (Fisher Saller 112).

I’m in agreement with Fisher Saller, who follows this definition with a series of advisements on how to disengage from editing, how to have a life, and how to leave work at work. From these suggestions, I might argue that copyeditors show Type A or workaholic characteristics, both of which I identify with, for better or worse.

All of these observations remind me of a conversation I once had with an assistant editor at the creative writing journal with which I interned my last semester of undergrad study. We were discussing the obsessive tendencies of editors in general, and she showed me a quick read on the correlation between editors and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) diagnoses. I can’t find the article now, but Fisher Saller mentions in her book. In searching for it online, I came across this Twitter post:

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From @PeterSokolwski on Twitter.com.

I include this example either to make light of a serious condition nor to reinforce a reductive, negative view of the copyediting profession. My purpose is to reflect on what it means for students in Editing and Publishing. Personal experience tells me that most copyeditors aren’t diagnosed with OCD, although some joke about claiming those traits. Certainly, though, the stereotype of the Type-A, brilliant but intense editor looms in our minds for good reason. Do most copyeditors need such traits? Do most feel as though they can’t reach out to others to discuss copyediting issues? And if so, does that inability stem from this negative stereotype that projects a need for perfection?

I’ll be interested to hear what the students have to say next week. I suspect there will be some glorification of the stereotype and some skepticism. What I’m counting on is that they’ll want to discuss this stereotype just as extensively as they seem to want to discuss all the practice edits we’ve been working on in class. Their eagerness to discuss speaks volumes toscussion in editing, I think. I hope the openness of the course and our stress on subjectivity and acknowledgment of variation resonates with our students. Finally, I hope this approach to teaching publishing ripples out to the profession. If we teach our students that subjectivity is okay, that most edits are debatable, and that making time for thoughtful discussion is often in their best interest, I think we can have an influence on the field. The connection between the classroom and the field is in the forefront of my interests right now. We’ll see if it maintains that position next week.