occasional blue lights on a circular metal contraption give the illusion of spinning and bathe the ground below in glow
08
Nov
2017

Write Out Loud: Risk & Reward in Digital Publishing

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Written by
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Reviewed by Daniel Lynds and Elizabeth Lenaghan
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066 of 366” by mjtmail; CC-BY 2.0

Language is a source of power that makes things happen in the world, and that is an important and challenging lesson to teach in college writing courses. Once students recognize the profound implications of our work with language, many of the skills instructors value — argumentation, organization, revision, editing, proofreading — become much easier to teach. In addition, given that many of us work with students for merely one semester, when we want or need at least two, teaching students how and why language matters in the world helps ensure that they will continue to work on their writing once they leave our classrooms.

During my career as a graduate student, I became increasingly aware of the power of language as I began to publish my writing online (mainly through blogs on HASTAC) and in academic journals. People would quote my work, share it with others, and contact me to discuss their ideas. They would tell me how my writing about pedagogy prompted them to do something different in their classrooms. As someone who thinks deeply about feminist and antiracist politics of citation, publishing for a wide audience made me even more meticulous about citing those whose labor and ideas have enabled my own thinking. In addition, working as an editor for the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy helped connect my work with undergraduate writers to the process of shepherding academic articles through from initial submissions to polished final products. As both an editor and instructor giving feedback on student writing, I came to understand how the process of editing is itself pedagogical and can further empower authors and spark greater creativity.

In fall 2016, I decided to take what I had learned as a graduate student gradually becoming a writer and develop an assignment that would help undergraduates better understand the power of language through the experience of writing for publication. Instead of writing a traditional final paper that would be read solely by students’ peers and their instructor, the students in my basic writing course at Queens College used what they had learned over the course of a semester to collaboratively author submissions to a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal. After spending a semester immersed in debates about active learning, critical pedagogy, the role of technology in education, standardized testing, education funding, and segregated schooling, they attempted to enter an actual, ongoing scholarly conversation occurring among the Hybrid Pedagogy community. I anticipated that this assignment would help students further develop their reading, writing, and revising skills; practice writing for a specific audience; and learn the power of their own voices and stories.

The final research projects in my classes are always creative, collaborative, and published online, and I am continually impressed by the way these assignments increase engagement and learning at the end of the semester. These group projects are grounded in a social epistemology of knowledge production: the idea that knowledge and skills are widely distributed and that together we can produce something better than we can individually, provided we equitably and effectively structure the collaboration process. There is a lot of theory and research that supports this idea (highlighted in the next paragraph), but the truth is that none of this theory would have caught my attention if I hadn’t first experienced the benefits of collaboration as an undergraduate. Like most undergraduates, I hated group projects, which consistently left me doing all the work while others received credit. It wasn’t until a professor assigned a research project that required collective thinking — and actually showed us how much better our work could be with multiple minds put to a task — that I became convinced that collaboration is a fundamental and teachable humanities skill. I share this anecdote with students, who regularly tell me that I am the only professor to ever acknowledge their collective hatred of collective work. By contrast, my assignments begin from the premise that we don’t actually know how to equitably distribute work — that, if anything, our educations have taught us to compete, rather than collaborate, with the students sitting next to us. And yet the ability to work with others towards a goal is essential for success in any endeavor, whether that’s organizing the next Women’s March or Black Lives Matter protest, or succeeding in medical school.

This collaborative approach to writing for real audiences is supported by the engaged pedagogies of Paulo Freire and bell hooks; the collaborative learning analyzed by Kenneth M. Bruffee, Rebecca Moore Howard, and Elizabeth F. Barkley et al.; and contemporary advocates of public writing in the undergraduate classroom such as Lisa Ede, Angela Lunsford, and Cathy N. Davidson. In The New Education, Davidson summarizes the findings of the Stanford Study of Writing: “students do not do particularly well in writing papers just for the sake of writing papers. Rather, students value writing that ‘makes something happen in the world’” (93). My writing through publication assignment drew heavily from my experience as the graduate assistant in Davidson’s “American Literature, American Learning” graduate seminar in which students didn’t write traditional seminar papers, but instead co-authored chapters that were later edited by their undergraduate students and published in Structuring Equality, a handbook of student-centered teaching and learning. My assignment was also informed by Howard’s notion that the best collaborative assignments are tasks that can better be achieved by a group, not just an individual. And finally, it was inspired by my dissertation research on the feminist and antiracist pedagogies of authors Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich, all of whom believed that publishing student writing was a mode of collective empowerment amidst a dominant culture that actively silences huge swaths of the U.S. population.

poster paper affixed to wall showing five lists of student names with topic brainstorming beneath each

Students identified writing topics before drafting their work

After asking students to choose what story they will tell and how they will tell it, they have amazed me, producing stunning digital timelines on the history of public education; beautiful websites about their journeys to Queens College; original lyric poetry about microaggressions; and challenging lesson plans for teaching literature alongside history (many of these can be viewed in the digital gallery I created to showcase their work). My task as an instructor is helping these projects reach an audience beyond our classroom, and I saw Hybrid Pedagogy as one way of doing that.

While there are many exciting conversations about the purpose of education in today’s society, so rarely are the voices of actual students included in these discussions. (Catherine Prendergast’s students helped me realize the gravity of this omission.) This is, in part, because academic hierarchies dictate that students in basic writing classes have little, if anything, to contribute to knowledge production. However, increasingly, scholarly organizations and digital publishing platforms are making a concerted effort to include student voices in their conversations about teaching and learning. The writing through publishing assignment for my undergraduates would not have been possible without Chris Friend, who, along with a team of dedicated readers willing to work with a quick turnaround time, made my pedagogical dream into a reality. I want to take this opportunity to publicly thank Chris and the Hybrid Pedagogy team, whose efforts to enact (not merely recite) the liberatory pedagogies of Paulo Freire and bell hooks certainly result in hours of unacknowledged labor, such as those spent working with me and my students on this project. In future iterations of this project, I look forward to discovering what other venues might publish student work, though I understand the commitment of Hybrid Pedagogy to empowering marginalized student voices to still be the exception, and not the rule, within academic publishing.

Risks and rewards

In fall 2016, students in College Writing 110 were not only informed that the subject of our semester would be “The Purpose of Education,” but also that they would be reading, writing, and learning all semester in preparation to submit articles to a scholarly, peer-reviewed, open-access journal. At the same time, they learned what a scholarly, peer-reviewed, open access journal is: a conversation among people researching a specific topic, sharing and debating the conclusions of their research in public, with the intent of engaging a larger audience in this conversation. Like all Queens College students, the majority of my students that semester were working class, immigrants, non-native speakers of English, and/or the first in their families to attend college. Few arrived with an interest in education and even fewer came to that required class enthusiastic about a semester devoted to writing. As one might imagine, I spent those first few classes wondering what exactly I had been thinking when I decided we would spend the semester not only reviewing the fundamentals of English grammar and introducing the conventions of college writing (challenging, semester-long endeavors in and of themselves) but also preparing these students to co-author original, meaningful, and well-researched contributions to an academic journal. (For specific details about the process, method, scaffolded assignments, and prompts see my post on HASTAC.)

During those first few weeks of the semester, I had to remind myself of the rewards publishing might yield to students, when all I could seemingly think about were the risks. For many of the students, this course was their first experience using research to make an argument and incorporating different types of evidence to support their claims. While many students were fluent readers and writers in languages other than English, we spent a lot of time going over the basics of English grammar and difficult skills like paragraph organization, which can take years of practice to master. Given this, the greatest risk seemed to be that the publishing assignment would discourage students by reinforcing their own sense that they “aren’t writers,” especially if their work was rejected from the journal.

In working to mitigate this first risk, I stumbled upon another. All semester, I reminded students that accuracy and precision were important because others would be reading their writing and learning from their ideas. At the same time, following Cheryl E. Ball’s “editorial pedagogy,” I told students that a decision of “Revise and resubmit” would be a tremendous success, equivalent to an “A” grade. I knew how busy students were, that this was a required course, and that many students had little interest in academic writing, so it was unlikely that any would opt to continue doing the revisions necessary for publication in the journal. Wanting to make good on my promise that people would be reading their writing while simultaneously acknowledging the time constraints of an academic semester, I became determined to find a way for their voices to reach an audience of educators, even if it wasn’t specifically through Hybrid Pedagogy.

To ensure that students’ writings would still be available online, I developed a revision and publication assignment that gave students various options for implementing the feedback from the Hybrid Pedagogy editors and sharing their work. The assignment gave students three options for proceeding with their project:

  1. revising their articles in preparation to resubmit them to Hybrid Pedagogy (this option was available to the three groups that received the equivalents of “Accept with minor revisions” or “Revise and resubmit”)
  2. revising their articles into blog posts that they would post to the “Scholarly Voices” group for undergraduate writing on HASTAC (this option was available to all groups)
  3. revising their articles and submitting them solely to the instructor (which was available to all groups, but only to be used as a last resort if students had a pressing reason why their writing should not be published online)

Many students opted to make whatever revisions they could in the remaining time we had together during the semester, rather than continuing on with the editorial feedback loop that would extend far beyond our class. After it became clear that students wanted to post to HASTAC, another risk emerged: that student writing, in need of revisions they simply didn’t have time to make, would be posted with their names attached to it, and could come back to haunt them later on in life. As a class, we discussed how HASTAC’s community of users might benefit and how the students might benefit as well from a piece of published writing that could be sent to employers and included on their resumes as evidence of their research, collaboration, digital publishing, and editing skills. But we also discussed the fact that this piece of writing would be available in search results for years to come. Given the current political climate of anti-immigration, I created the third option to ensure that a student would not be penalized if their group decided they were not comfortable publishing online and wanted to submit their writing solely to the instructor. The safety of my students outweighs any benefits that could be reaped by a piece of published writing, and I wanted there to be zero repercussions for students who felt compromised by digital publishing. Ultimately, I wanted students to understand the potential benefits and consequences of each option, and to guide them in the process of making an informed decision about which option was right for them.

The risks of publishing were mitigated, in part, by the group on HASTAC dedicated to undergraduate writing, “Scholarly Voices,” created by Steven L. Berg, which announces to readers that the posts are authored by undergraduates. Students also found creative ways to mitigate this risk such as publishing posts with a pseudonym, omitting their names altogether, or announcing their subject-positioning as first-year writing students. In the end, all of the groups opted to post their writing to HASTAC, except for one intrepid group of students — Sumedha Madan, Fina Ferrara, and Gavriel Lev — who worked with the journal’s editors for months after our semester ended to revise their article for publication. Their article, “The Ultimate Life Experience: Preparing Students for the World Beyond the Classroom” was published on August 30, 2017.

Anyone can be a writer

To my surprise, in students’ reflections on this assignment, they repeatedly emphasized how transformative the group nature of the project was. As one student, Juliana Moreno, beautifully wrote, “Despite of the fact that my group’s paper wasn’t accepted, that wasn’t our main goal regardless. Our main goal was to successfully work together as one to create a better piece that would otherwise be produced by one of us individually.” My students’ narratives of their final projects are tales of success that emphasize the ways their groups triumphed over the obstacles of collaborative work. When you spend an entire semester discussing all of the ways that grades and standardized testing have taught students to compete with those sitting next to them, the challenge of writing together felt like a more insurmountable obstacle than undermining centuries of elitist ideology that dictate that undergraduate writing isn’t worthy of publication. Unlearning this indoctrination and successfully working together towards a common goal can be as empowering as publishing their writing.

Since I’ve started having students publish their writing for real audiences, I’ve noticed a common refrain throughout my teaching evaluations: “Your course taught me that anyone can be a writer.” Not only does publishing their writing -— whether on HASTAC or in Hybrid Pedagogy -— help students think critically about their audience, the amount of evidence provided to support claims, and the politics of citation, there is something about transmutation, seeing their writing online, sharing it with others, and observing others commenting on and engaging with their ideas, that is empowering. I recognize this, because I felt it as a graduate student writer.

Despite what pundits proclaim about lazy millennials, students in my classes have taught me that today’s college students arrive with a passion for social change. We are lucky because now, perhaps more than ever, we need them for the production of a more just and equal world. Thanks to the generous team of Hybrid Pedagogy editors, this publishing assignment helped students understand that their words matter in the world beyond the classroom. If we can help students better recognize their capacity for action by understanding that they too are writers with important things to say, then having students “write out loud” is well worth the risks.

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