Publishing with Students – Actually Writing

This is the final post from a series I wrote in 2012 about writing and publishing with undergraduate students. I’ll be publishing this series every other Thursday over the summer. For more recent research and resources, visit the new International Journal for Students as Partners and a special issue of Teaching and Learning Inquiry that I co-edited on students as co-inquirers.

OK, so you’ve asked students to work with you, figured out a SoTL question to address together, and collected your data. Now how exactly do you do the actual writing?

Dissemination is an important part of SoTL work as we continue to build the knowledge base surrounding teaching and learning outside of more traditional educational research. For many of us, writing can be a challenge – whether it’s motivating yourself to write during a busy week in the semester, avoiding distractions, deciding what to write when you do have some time, or just fighting writer’s block or procrastination. Accountability is always an issue given our competing responsibilities, even when you have some awesome motivation like AcWriMo.

Given that I teach and study writing, I certainly don’t find it onerous, but it definitely take me a while to warm up before I get into a grove on a new piece. Bringing students into your very personal writing process requires some finesse and a good attitude! Here are some tips that can be helpful during the writing process:

1. Be honest with students about your usual writing process. Students often are mystified that, even for faculty members, writing is developmental and ongoing learning process. I like to talk my students through the publication process but also my own process so they understand that we can be on a relatively level playing field when we collaborate. My own process is more cerebral; I’m what Lisa Ede calls a “heavy planner,” so I need to do all my reading, thinking, planning, and even some mental drafting before I ever put fingers to keyboard. That can be frustrating if you are working with “heavy revisers” or might look like procrastination to others (it’s really not for me, my mother had the same process when she went back to college – it’s genetic). So before we write we have an open discussion about our writing processes so we understand each other as fellow writers.

2. Decide how everyone’s voice will be represented in the article. Will you write from a unified collective voice? Will you each have a personal voice in the piece? Will you refer to each other in the first or third person? If you are writing for a disciplinary publication, some of those conventions will be decided for you. But many SoTL publications are much more open in the structure of articles and how authors articulate themselves. I’ve found that, for me, it’s just easier if everyone has their own voice – we write the intro and conclusion collectively, then have our own sections from our first person perspectives, usually a related introductory narrative that illustrates a research point and then a section that pulls the addition data in to further the argument. This allows the best of both worlds – and it spreads the writing work around so that your student co-authors don’t become intimidated thinking about writing 30 pages or 8000 words.

3. Create the outline, and decide who is responsible for what. I’ll often take the first stab at an outline then ask the students to review and flesh it out before our next meeting. I’m the experienced writer here, so it would be unfair to throw them into the deep end at this point. We work on the outline together, even sorting different bits of the data and findings into the piece. We then decide who wants to write what section. This has been relatively easy so far. Most of my co-authors either had a specific opinion or were happy to write any section, so it all balanced out. In these cases, I have usually taken on the literature review and a first draft of the introduction (using the thesis we collectively developed), then asked the students to take the lead on the conclusion.

Because I’m coauthoring SoTL pieces rather than strict disciplinary research, and because my students are unlikely to be going on to graduate school in the field, I’m not worried about having them work through the literature. We certainly read a few articles and other lit reviews so they get a sense of what that looks like, but I write it…frankly because in this case it’s just faster. Now if you were doing disciplinary scholarship, socializing students into that skill might be far more important, so you can decide what’s best for your students in those cases.

4. Develop a realistic writing timeline together with specific, achievable goals for everyone. When my head is totally in the game and my heavy planning is complete, I can sit down and bang out a well-formed 25-page draft in two or three days (if my schedule is clear). For heavy revisers and most students, that’s ludicrous (it is for me too sometimes). Earlier in the writing process with your student co-authors, you probably did some freewriting, and that’s a good place to start your schedule-thinking. Talk about how long that took, how comfortable they are with the writing style, and what their schedules look like over the next few weeks. I try to be ambitious without being crazy about it. Typically I set a 5-6 week writing period, and we discuss what we will have to or for each other by specific set weekly dates. The schedule will definitely need to be adjusted, but it gives the writing activities structure and the writers accountability. The weekly deadlines are good for me too because I don’t want to not hit a deadline when I’m trying to model professionalism and prioritization. We usually would meet a day or two after one of those deadlines to exchange revising advice and feedback, then move forward toward the next goal.

5. Build in a lot of revision time. And resist your inner old blue-haired grammar teacher. Arguably revision is the most important and most challenging part of this writing process because revision can be mysterious for students. While we might teach excellent strategies for revising academic writing, we know that it’s often more expedient for them to skip it and just turn something in. But revising your article is the time to be at your best as a mentor and to control your own urges to “just fix it” so that students really see you as a co-author. I certainly struggle with this a great deal, usually because I know what the student is trying to say and it’s just easier to change it myself…and because I’m an excellent style mimic and I know I’ll get away with it (I worked on a mentor’s textbook in graduate school, and to this day she isn’t sure whether she wrote those chapters or I did).

So I try to check my natural tendencies until it’s useful for the students to be learning, and as we get closer to the end I let my editor out slowly. I’ve found that students really appreciate this because it shows I take their writing seriously, that I want them to help me improve mine as well, and that I’ll make sure everything is up to publication standard in the end. And PS – going overboard fixing every single grammar mistake after the first draft is really a waste of time since much of that work is likely to get revised anyway. Revise for content before editing for grammar.

Hopefully these tips will help you manage the collaborative writing process with your student co-authors and result in many excellent experiences and publications. Thank you for reading this series, and I hope you have found it helpful. Looking forward to seeing your co-authored publications in SoTL journals very soon!

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