Publishing Student Work

In my Intro to Research classes, I wanted to find a way to make student work mean more than just a paper on a desk at the end of the semester. As I went through the process of submitting a paper for print publication for the first time, I recognized that the experience was one my students should experience early and often. I decided to create a publication for my students’ research papers. It was extremely limited in scope, but it would be a publication.

I’ve been teaching a FYC course on the research process for several semesters now. Each time through, I get a little bit closer to publicly posting the papers my students create. For now, I’m making a “class journal”—a large document formatted to resemble the academic journals my students have gathered research from and were asked to write their papers for. Their goal was to pretend like they were writing an academic journal article to report on their findings. I want to give them a journal to write in.
Two main sources inspired my approach: first, my department publishes Stylus: A Journal of First-Year Writing. It’s a collection of the best work done by students enrolled in our FYC courses, and it works with the annual Knights Write Showcase to provide greater visibility for writing classes and students across campus. Students involved in these two projects get a sense that their writing can exist—and be recognized—outside the classroom.
My second inspiration came from Cheryl Ball. In an article I cite far too often, she explains her grading system for a writing course. In short, as an editor of Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, Ball understands the expectations of a “real” online publication and can apply those same standards to her students’ in-class work. She aims to have her students produce web texts that would warrant a “revise and resubmit” response from the editorial team.

Between these approaches exists an option I find very approachable: get my students to create academic research papers that qualify for “revise and resubmit” status with a print publication that journals first-year writing. This goal helps me see the endgame of my course, and it helps students feel like their work does more than sit in a pile on my desk. They’re writing to be published, not to be graded. I find the shift in priorities makes their work more real to them and better to me.

As part of this process, I typeset everyone’s final article in a format that looks more like a professional journal and less like a Microsoft Word template. I’ve heard a few comments from students about how impressed they are with their own work once they see it presented with more concern for design and readability. They’re so used to the drill of double-spaced draft text inside one-inch margins that when I show their work as print-ready, they rightfully feel like they—and their work—have grown up a bit.
The process can be tedious. I make sure the text looks consistent and present figures and tables (like data visualizations or results reports) the same way for each article, so I generally have to re-create their graphics. I do a bit of touch-up work on their reference lists, but a) I could go insane worrying about all the details from all my students’ papers, b) most of them use online reference-creation tools, which get close enough in my opinion, and c) we’re aiming for “revise and resubmit” here, not perfection. I want my course to be about the research process and about using writing to report on and work with that process, not about meticulous details of ever-changing citation standards. But I digress.

What I’m left with is a substantial document containing the best work of my students from the semester. I printed a copy of the one from this spring term, placed it in a three-ring binder, and set it on my desk in my office. This semester, that binder has served as a challenge: Remember how satisfying this was to create, and remember what you wanted to make better. Out-do yourself this time.

In the spring, that journal was a last-minute idea, just to experiment. Something about the way I approached that class made my students’ final papers much weaker than I had hoped. They didn’t write as much as I wanted them to, and their work didn’t feel as substantial as it should have been. My students understood the basic elements of the research process, but they needed more help and practice with reporting their findings and their learning. This semester, I’ve been determined to create final articles we can be proud of. It looks like it’s working, too. I showed some of last semester’s papers to this semester’s students, and they recognized that the work they’re doing this semester is much more substantial. They asked why the previous papers were so short. I took the blame: “Because I didn’t set them up right. I didn’t create the right expectations for their papers.”
I think my answer worked. It was an effort to make students realize that a) their predecessors were more capable than they appeared, and b) I generally do hold students to high standards. The papers I got that semester were more substantive, more interesting, more effective, and more professional. This process taught me the importance of thinking outside the classroom and of showing students examples of whatever it is I’m asking them to do.

The Technical Details

The layout process is tricky. I use LaTeX for my typesetting, and despite its popularity for scientific and mathematical writing, I’ve not been able to find a complete solution that allows for easy and automated creation of a journal containing documents by multiple authors. Starting from the work of Sven Siegmund, I’ve made small adjustments to his excellent Author per Chapter (aka Proceedings) document class and now use a customized class file that allows me to rather easily build my course journals.
Siegmund’s class file started with the standard memoir class and made the following changes (which I’m quoting right from his description):

  1. Disables chapter numbering and also removes the “0.” before section number
  2. Writes the author and his home institute under the chapter title
  3. Does not typeset the page number on the initial page of the chapter
  4. Shows the short version of the chapter title in even head
  5. Shows the author’s name in the odd head
  6. Shows the author’s name above the chapter’s title in the table of contents

My additions made further minor changes:

  1. Resets section numbering with each new chapter, avoiding an awkward and recurring “5. Introduction” issue.
  2. Removes the chapter number (which is always zero) from figure and table titles, avoiding the awkward “Figure 0.3” labels. Note that this change wreaks havoc with hyperref, making it impossible to link to different sections within the document.

I’m sure there are more-elegant solutions to the two minor changes I made, but I needed something that worked quickly and didn’t require me to get a degree in LaTeX while pursuing one in Texts & Technology, too. It looks like Siegmund hasn’t modified this document in four years; I need to contact him to see about posting this somewhere like Github to allow further improvements (or, as I hinted at above, to allow more elegant solutions to the problems I tried to fix/avoid).

To build the journal, I put the text of each student’s article in a separate .tex file, with no headers or anything. Individual source documents makes it easier to send each student and individualized proof to check layouts. (That’s the part they love because it makes them feel respected and legitimate.) I then use a basic outline journal document that inputs each student’s article as it compiles. Using what amounts to a contents list that inputs separate files for each student makes the editing and proofing process much simpler, and it makes compiling the final document just as easy.

When all my students have approved their proofs, I create a single PDF of the entire class journal and send it out to them. Because the page count quickly hits the triple digits, they feel they’ve contributed to something rather significant. That feeling goes well beyond the satisfaction of turning in a completed assignment or getting a good grade on a paper. It taps into their pride and bolsters their confidence—tough things to do when it comes to student writing.