To say we live in interesting times is an understatement. Things we thought we definitively knew a month ago have turned out to be nothing but illusions.

However, one thing I thought might be true has been confirmed — I am not a fan of online teaching. As it turns out, my students are not fans of online learning, either.

Even before spring break, when it looked like the pandemic would spread (I teach journalism and my students are budding journalists, which means we are cursed with analyzing facts and science, meaning it was hard to avoid the inevitability of the coming disruption), my students were complaining about going online.

The general thoughts were not about the difficulty of the assignments, but they all indicated a general self-awareness of procrastination and a lack of self-motivation. Don’t get me wrong, my students are smart and hard working. They are used to, mostly, working to deadlines. But they all bemoaned the impending lack of structure.

So, when the decision was made to go online for the rest of the semester, everyone scrambled to adjust.

I already front-load my feature writing class, with most of the classwork taking place in the first half of the semester so students are supposed to write five published stories during the semester. As one would expect, half of them were already at or ahead of schedule, which means they will have an easy time fulfilling the requirements. Others had not really bothered to do anything, despite constant prodding. They are suddenly finding themselves in a difficult situation, with the opportunities for interviews much more difficult.

Overall, that is just the same as in any class. There are the overachievers and the procrastinators. However, I shall use this situation in the future as a cautionary tale against putting off the work.

The part about teaching I miss is the one-on-one editing. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing more exhausting than editing. On busy days when I have to edit stories for the University Press, when I may read 15-20 stories, I am worn out by the end of the day.

At the same time, it is when the best teaching is done. I get tremendous pleasure from sitting with a student and reading their story, helping to refine and shape it. It is an opportunity for me to question them, encourage them cajole them and, yes, give them a hard time, sometimes.

Now we are distance learning — and social distancing — the edits have to be done remotely. It takes twice as long, as I have to make the edits (which I mark in bold), explain why the edits are made (which I type in red), type questions for clarification (which I then need to wait for a response). I normally email the original with markups and an edited version for the student to compare. Only then can I post it on the University Press website — the newspaper is not being printed and all stories must be published to count for a grade.

I understand that in the professional world there won’t be anyone to hold their hand through the story. But these are students. My job is to prepare them for that professional world, to get their writing to a point where they won’t have so many questions that need to be asked.

I tell students that, in the professional world, the copy editor will slash away anything that doesn’t read well so they had better learn to make their copy unslashable.

The other thing they don’t get, which is the most valuable tool for editing, is listening to me read it out loud. A previous UP editor said, “The only way to really ‘hear’ the story is when Andy uses his dad-reading-a-bedtime-story voice.” I think it is important, especially when it comes to quoted material, to speak the words. The inflection determines the punctuation, giving it the right meaning or emphasis.

I tell students all the time to read their stories out loud. Then I watch them mumble along, at speed, under their breaths. As soon as I start to read, in a more deliberate manner, they immediately start to pick up on misplaced commas, sentence fragments, or simply terrible sentences.

Often, as I read, the student is reading slightly ahead of me and I hear them groan at an upcoming error. One student literally pushed my rolling chair out of the way to fix an error before I got to it and could give him a hard time (and wrong “its” or “theres” for upperclassmen deserve all the ridicule I heap on them).

So, is this the new normal? I hope not. I can adapt to any situation, but there’s no substitute for being in the same room. Honestly, I miss them — but don’t tell I said that, I’ve got an image to maintain.


One thought on “Editing student copy in a pandemic isn’t easy — or as much fun

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