Why Publishing Should Be Part of the Undergraduate Writing Experience

Why Publishing Should Be Part of the Undergraduate Writing Experience

Lisa Nielson

In high school, I would never have believed that I would become a published author someday. For me, writing was about as enjoyable as pulling nose hairs: it was tedious and painful to the point of tears. But all that changed when, as a sophomore in college, I took a class in which we wrote and edited a handbook on how to survive college writing. I poured hours of drafting, writing, and revision into the articles that were subsequently published in the book and sold in the university’s bookstore. Students enrolling in freshman writing were required to buy the book. Teachers assigned my articles. I became a published author.

I’ve been writing ever since, and I even enjoy it.

Now as a master’s student in rhetoric, I’ve come to recognize how unique my experience was. Not every college undergrad gets to see their writing as more than an assignment to pass from teacher to grade to recycle bin. Yet there is evidence that my experience in being changed as a writer through being published is not unique: publishing student writing significantly improves student motivation and quality of writing, not to mention provides invaluable experience in the revision, editing, and publishing process professional writers undergo. If the simple experience of writing to be published and read by a real audience has such powerful results, why is publishing not an integral part of the undergraduate writing experience? What is the place of publishing within the undergraduate composition curriculum, and how should it be implemented? I hope to answer these questions by first defining publication in the context of composition pedagogy, next by arguing that publishing student writing should become a focus within the curriculum because of its positive effects on student process and product, and finally by analyzing the affordances and constraints of both online and print publication options available to a composition class. While it may require more effort and motivation of both teachers and students in undergraduate composition courses, publishing student writing can have a profoundly positive impact on the students and their writing.

What is Publishing?

Before getting started, I need to define what I mean by publishing—especially now that publishing happens in so many different ways. For this paper, publishing will mean to put into an interface—be it print or digital—that is accessible to a public audience. Public, then, will refer to anyone outside the immediate class setting. While the class itself can be a sort of public and presenting to a class through workshops, peer reviews, or presentations can be a kind of performative act related to publishing, such “public” sharing is still confined to a single class controlled by the politics of the classroom. The importance of producing work outside the classroom is that students see their writing as applicable beyond the end of the course and the final grade. So publishing will refer to the act of making student work accessible to people outside the class. This definition includes publishing that happens both professionally and nonprofessionally in the variety of public media that can be called “publications”; it also implies the audiences, or “publics,” associated with these venues.

Effects of Publishing on Student Writing

With these definitions in mind, my goal is to prove that publishing student writing should become part of the undergraduate writing curriculum. My personal experience, plenty of teacher lore, and several researched studies prove the benefits that come from providing students with the opportunity to write for authentic audiences through publishing.

The amount of lore testifying to the beneficial impact of writing for publication in the classroom is staggering. For example, high school teacher Robert Redmon’s article “The Power Of Publishing” published in the 1996 English Journal recounts the story of his students demanding more relevant writing assignments and forming their own newspaper based on their concerns and interests. “Students who had previously refused to write, wrote,” testifies Redmon. Once his students thought they were involved in a “real” publication, their involvement in writing and reading greatly increased (78). Other experiential evidence suggests that along with increasing student involvement, writing for publication improves the quality of writing. Gretchen Lee’s article “Technology in the Language Arts Classroom: Is It Worth the Trouble?” published in Voices from the Middle, emphatically recommends publishing student writing, claiming that the “sense of audience” Internet and desktop publishing provides students “makes a huge difference in the quality of the work the students do” (25). Lee states that when her students learned they were writing to be published, “suddenly the grammar rules that were ‘dumb’ mattered. Accuracy, mood, and tone were all important” (25). Now, with the ease of publishing through blogging and other social media platforms, many teachers are working to include blogs and wikis in their curriculum, both to make student work public and to harness the collaborative and interactive opportunities such publications provide. David Isaksen, a master’s student at BYU, reported that having a focus on publishing via blogs in his FYW course helped students “envision much more of an audience” in the writing process, and “the ones who really caught on got almost addicted [to] weekly blog posts. . . . There was much more extra-curricular writing going on” (interview). He also mentioned that grades were generally better in this class as compared to other FYW courses he had taught. These specific examples are just a few of many practitioner testimonials. Teacher forums, such as englishcompanion.ning.com, are replete with more.

Such success stories aren’t told by teachers alone. Published authors (including me) recognize that being published impacts not only their writing but also their identity as writers. Popular adolescent novelist Jerry Spinelli says that when he was sixteen he wanted to become a professional baseball player. However, when his poem about winning a big game made it into a local newspaper, “suddenly I had something new to become: a writer.” This does not suggest that being published is a life-changing event for everyone but rather illustrates that having a public audience take your writing seriously makes you a more serious writer.

These stories all suggest that publishing can help student writers become more motivated and effective in their writing and help them develop their identity as writers. Why does publishing have these effects?

Why Publishing Works

One reason practitioners mention is that publishing gives students the opportunity to write for an authentic audience—a public beyond the classroom. And according to educational psychologist Alecia Marie Magnifico, “communication with an audience is a central component of how expert writers learn to write . . . the feedback that a writer gets from her audience is critical to her continued work and her identity as a writer” (178).
Magnifico notes that while writing for authentic audience is an increasingly important skill, “there has, thus far, been little new research in the areas of education or psychology that focuses specifically on the concept of audience” (180). Such research may be necessary in further proving the value of publishing student writing as a heuristic in composition courses. Yet most practitioners and researchers would agree with this idea that an authentic audience motivates students to write better.

That said, writing for an authentic public isn’t right for every class, especially if the class focuses on more of what Charles Moran calls “writing from the heart” (Isaacs 35). In “Public and Private Writing in the Information Age,” Moran explains that while publishing can motivate students to write with more passion and purpose, it may hinder some students from taking the risks many teachers encourage their students to take in producing certain self-expressive writing. Students writing about highly personal or troubling matters may rightly hesitate to make themselves vulnerable to public opinion by publishing their work. Instructors will need to evaluate the affordances of publishing in their classroom based on course goals. Teachers focusing on writing as self-expression may find publishing a cramping, rather than enabling, method. If the goal, however, is to teach students communicative writing in rhetorical situations, publishing can help students learn to anticipate and accept responsibility for their readers’ responses. As Peter Elbow states in Writing Without Teachers, “getting a sense of audience isn’t just practice in feeling scared about how they might react. It also means learning how they do react. Most people are liberated by finally getting the reactions they fear most—usually extreme criticism or extreme praise. They discover the world doesn’t fall apart” (83).

Understanding and taking responsibility for how their writing impacts an audience (and themselves, in conversation with that audience) is clearly valuable for students to become effective writers. Publishing provides this opportunity in an applicable, “real world” way.

Writing for an audience that transcends the classroom means that students’ writing will have an impact beyond the classroom. This can encourage a greater degree of authorial responsibility—another reason publishing can help students develop as writers. Nicholas Mauriello and Gian S. Pagnucci touch on this in their article “Can’t We Just Xerox This?: The Ethical Dilemma of Writing for the World Wide Web,” explaining that “when students write for an on-line audience, they . . . become accountable for their words and the emotional impact those words may stir within the reader” (Isaacs 50). They give an example of a student whose inaccurate essay on US military tactics sparked multiple responses from veterans in his online audience, inspiring him to revise for accuracy (50). Although perhaps less immediate than in online settings, reader reaction and feedback can be part of the print publication experience as well. Whether in print or online, as students see public reaction to their writing, they can experience their power as writers and be held accountable for how they use that power.

The next explanation for the positive impact publishing has on student writing is that being published gives students “ownership” of their writing. In talking about using blogs in the classroom, Professor Charles Lowe and PhD candidate Terra Williams claim that “by making their writing public in class, students begin to take responsibility for/ownership of what they have to say rather than handing it directly over to a teacher-reader-grader.” David Isaksen’s experience with publishing class blogs corroborates this statement—as his students learned about the growing importance of their online profile and how their blogs were part of it, students began to see their blog publications as résumé builders (interview). Print publications are also such résumé builders, and printed bylines certainly build a sense of ownership.

Theorists and practitioners agree that publishing student writing helps writers by providing authentic audience, authorial responsibility, and ownership of their writing. Though perhaps not appropriate for all types of writing courses, publishing student writing can and does have good results. We (the teachers of undergraduate composition courses) should do it.

But how should we do it?

Affordances and Constraints of Publishing Venues and Media

This is an important question since all publishing venues are not created equal—blogging online has significant differences in its affordances than printing a book or zine, for example. Briefly I will examine some of the affordances and constraints of a few representative publishing venues and their associated media interfaces—the pros and cons of choosing to self-publish a webpage versus submiting a book to a local bookstore, for example—and their heuristic possibilities.

Many writing instructors love using online publishing venues such as blogs, wikis, and even websites. BYU English Professor Patrick Madden taught several courses in which students worked together to build a web page. In an email, Madden recommended publishing this way because “it’s cheap and relatively easy, and because students are then forced to decide whether they want to be proud of or embarrassed by their own work, which tends to make them work harder on it. This feels real to me, unlike the isolation of ‘practice’ writing in most classes.” Along with being a cheap and easy option, the quick feedback that Internet interfaces facilitate give students an opportunity to hear from their audience and even engage in conversation. Researchers recognize this, saying that because of this commenting feature, especially in blogs, “Blogging can potentially provide students with a window into peers’ perspectives, a doorway to a global audience, and a mirror through which to reflect on their own thinking and writing” (Ellison and Wu 119). Magnifico also notes that online audiences “comment, collaborate, and grant authority. . . . As a result of this active audience collaboration and feedback . . . writing feels consequential, motivating, and interesting to many online writers” (180). Such an active audience is not guaranteed by the medium; Wallin notes that blogging in particular “shares the same difficulties in establishing a real audience and building authenticity seen in more traditional public writing venues” (ii). Yet it is possible for students to experience writing for this kind of “active audience” when publishing online. These benefits of Internet publishing, not to mention the hype of hypertext and multimedia, make publishing online an attractive option to instructors and students alike.

With all the benefits of publishing online, it is important to recognize the potential problems involved. Ellison points to the ethical issues involved with publishing, noting that requiring a student to publish online “under his or her true name may violate [FERPA] policies depending on the content of the posts” (117). Students publishing online also begin to establish their digital footprint, and “for blog sites that are public and archived by web crawlers, student words will be linked to their digital persona for many, many years, creating an ethical conundrum. Should students be held accountable for their words 30 or 40 years later?” (117). Ellison suggests that students use pseudonyms rather than real names to avoid some of this issue (117). Yet as in Isaksen’s class, some students were motivated by creating quality material for their “digital persona” that could build their résumé. This is perhaps a choice to be made clear to students and then left to their discretion. However, instructors and students should be aware of the ethical concerns involved in requiring students to publish online.

Print publishing avoids such ethical dilemmas and offers some heuristic possibilities that most do not associate with online publishing. Perhaps the greatest affordance of print publishing is that it is associated with a rigorous editing and revising process. In my own experience as a book and magazine editor, any writing proposed for publication goes through a multiple-draft process of content revision, copyediting, and design editing before it is published. I hope to design a course in which students take on the roles of content and copy editors and designers, modeling the structure of a typical publication’s editorial staff and board. Writing for such a publication would give students experience in the professional publishing process, helping them learn how to revise for excellence in content, copy, and design matters. While these concerns are also part of creating web content, there may be less focus on collaboration before publication than is traditional in print publishing.

Two major concerns with creating a print publication, however, are cost of publishing and creating audience, especially in the context of a class-produced publication. Cost is surprisingly less than most would assume—self-publishing venues like diggypod.com are quite reasonable, and many universities have presses with affordable self-publishing options. Audience, however, is more challenging. I plan to have students publish for their peers in future courses I teach; their published writing will be a collection of examples for future students to look at. Other instructors had agreements with local bookstores and newspapers to publish student writing (Ensio 19). While there are many options to find authentic audiences for print- published student writing, it may be more challenging to achieve with print than online publications.

And challenge is certainly inherent in the entire publishing process. Publishing student writing will require more of the instructor in creating a publication-focused curriculum and in helping students achieve the higher standards involved in writing for an authentic audience. Publication-focused writing courses will also require more of students than just writing for a grade. Yet there is substantial evidence to prove that in the end, providing experience in writing for a public beyond the classroom can produce writers who are more motivated, audience attuned, and responsible. The more rigorous and demanding nature of writing for publication— be it print or online—is perhaps the best reason why it should become fundamental practice in undergraduate writing courses.



Works Cited

Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

Ensio, Tobi C., and Krystal R. Boxeth. “The Effects of Publishing on Student Attitudes toward Writing.” May 2000. ERIC. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.

Ellison, Nicole B., and Yuehua Wu. “Blogging in the Classroom: A Preliminary Exploration of Student Attitudes and Impact on Comprehension.” Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia. 17.1 (2008): 99–122. ProQuest. Web. 12 Dec. 2011.

Isaacs, Emily J., and Phoebe Jackson, eds. Public Works: Student Writing as Public Text. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 2001. Print.

Isaksen, David. Personal interview. 10 Dec. 2011.

Lee, Gretchen. “Technology in the Language Arts Classroom: Is It Worth the Trouble?” Voices from the Middle 7.3. (Mar 2000): 24–32. ProQuest. Web. 2 Nov. 2011.

Lowe, Charles, and Terra Williams. “Moving to the Public: Weblogs in the Writing Classroom.” Into the Blogosphere: Rhetoric, Community, and Culture of Weblogs. University of Minnesota, N.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.

Madden, Patrick. “Re: Questions about student publishing.” Message to the author. 10 Dec. 2011. E-mail.

Magnifico, Alecia Marie. “Writing for Whom? Cognition, Motivation, and a Writer’s Audience.” Educational Psychologist 45.3 (2010): 167–184. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.

Redmon, Robert. “The Power of Publishing.” English Journal 86.2 (1997): 77–79. Academic Search Premier. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.

Spinelli, Jerry. “Biography.” Teachers: Where Teachers Come First. Scholastic, 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.

Wallin, Jonathan. “Civic Participation in the Writing Classroom: New Media and Public Writing.” MA thesis. Brigham Young University, 2010. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.