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 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 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.

 

Week Three: Editing as Process Learning

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Image 1: CMOS Proofreading Marks

In last week’s post, “Week Two: Editing for Evaluation,” I was beginning to think about how to grade editing. I was sure I wouldn’t use red ink. I was sure that traditional Chicago Manual of Style proofreading marks were in order, and I was sure that the feedback needed to be realistic. In other words, I didn’t want the feedback to feel artificial or unlike a real exchange with a senior editor.

The difference, I soon realized, was that the intention in grading for evaluation is to develop the writer, or in this case the aspiring editor, and the intention in editing for publication is to develop the final product. This difference sounds oddly akin to the process vs. product pedagogical debate scholars in rhetoric and composition once had. Yes, I say “had” because it’s in the past and most scholars would agree that developing the writer through process is a more effective approach to teaching.

There’s more than one way to define these pedagogical approaches and The Dartmouth Institute for Writing and Rhetoric’s website compares them well:

“While these distinctions may not hold up under deep scrutiny, they were useful in the early years of Composition Studies as a way of talking not only about what students write, but also about how they write.   James McCrimmon, for instance, understood this distinction as the difference between writing as a way of knowing (process) and writing as a way of telling (product). Donald Murray defined it as the difference between internal and external revision (revising in order to clarify meaning for oneself vs. revising in order to clarify meaning for the reader). Linda Flower framed it as the difference between writer-based and reader-based prose. Though these theorists differ in their definitions of the distinction between process- and product-oriented writing, they do agree on one point: good product depends on good process.”

Rubric categories created by Dr. Carrie Leverenz.

Image 2: Rubric categories created by Dr. Carrie Leverenz.

Going back to the realistic editing scenario I wanted to create for students, I can see now why I felt challenged. Tensions exist between the process-style of teaching I’m used to and the product-style required in editing. I’m still not convinced that grading more like an editor, for the product, is the best way, but I am confident that a combination of traditional copyediting marks and a rubric might be a good solution. Dr. Leverenz has created a rubric for this exercise that focuses on good editorial judgment, error correction, clear editing marks, and clear querying (see Image 2). I was fortunate enough to hear back from Dr. Michael Charlton at Missouri Western State University, the same professor who wrote a course design for a technical editing course, published in Composition Studies Journal, Spring 2013. He shared with me the rubrics he referenced in that design, which were quite detailed and elaborate. I was impressed, but for the purposes of this first editing assignment I think the rubric we have now is a good one with which to start.

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.