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.


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:


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.