Academic Exchange Quarterly Spring 2005 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 9, Issue 1
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Benefits of Writing with Students
Brian K. Payne,
Payne, Ph.D., is professor of Criminal Justice, and
Monk-Turner, Ph.D., is professor of Sociology at
In this paper, we discuss our positive experiences from co-authoring with undergraduate students. Student and faculty are addressed.
College and university instructors are facing increased demands to conduct and publish research in the current "publish or perish" academic environment. Being a professor is much more than publishing, however. It also entails teaching, doing research, and working with students both in and out of the classroom. The challenge that arises is balancing the ideals of teaching, research, and writing. One strategy we have found to be useful in balancing these ideals is through collaborative research projects with our students.
We have conducted a number of collaborative research projects with our students through their coursework or independent studies. These studies range from surveys of strippers by graduating seniors to research on honors students by introductory freshmen. In this paper, we address the benefits students and faculty members enjoy from collaborative projects.
One of the most obvious benefits for students is that students are able to learn and hone their research skills through collaborative projects (Ostrower 1998). Among other things, these skills include problem formulation, critical thinking, writing, survey development, data gathering, data analysis, and program evaluation. While students can gain these skills working on projects independently, we believe they are getting more valuable feedback when working directly with their professors. Rather than evaluating the project in the end, the faculty member works with students from the very beginning and guides the process so that it is more useful for students.
Students will also learn how painstaking the task of writing can be when they serve as co-authors with faculty members. Often times, we have students turn in papers, and we grade and return them. Their writing process basically ended when they received their grades. When we include students as co-authors, and our aim is an eventual publication, we are better able to show students how early drafts eventually change into paper submissions. Students then learn that their submissions are going to change as well. As one author says, students need to learn to "Write, rewrite, and rewrite again" (Berg 2002). Students also learn that writing does not end when the paper is turned in to the professor; rather their writing ends when the paper is accepted for publication or put to rest by the faculty member. In effect, co-authoring with students helps "to enrich the experiences and productivity of learners, thereby enabling them to produce powerful compositions" (Condon and Clyde 1996).
In addition to enhancing writing and research skills, students will further their knowledge about a particular topic when they write with their faculty members. They always pick subjects related to their prior coursework. Among other things, our students have studied attitudes about the death penalty, theoretical explanations for stripping, helping behavior, and reasons individuals with high IQs commit crimes. Students routinely comment that they better understood these topics after having conducted research studies about the topics.
Students also benefit from co-authoring with faculty members because they are given the opportunity to forge close relationships with fellow students. When we work with undergraduate co-authors, we have always made sure that there were at least two students working on the project. Our groups have ranged from a low of two students to a high of six students. Because they are working closely together on the project with us, they are usually able to become quite familiar with one another.
As one might expect, there have been instances where our student co-authors did not get along well. However, we see this as another benefit of involving multiple students as co-authors. Students will inevitably be placed in situations in their careers when they have to work with troublesome colleagues, clients, or consumers. It has been our experience that students working with difficult co-authors have always been able to at least temporarily resolve their problems. The importance of developing this form of problem solving cannot be understated. In class, what is at stake in group work is a grade. In the work setting, evaluations and raises may be affected by how well a group works together. Learning the skill of working effectively with others, even when this is not by choice, is a valuable skill to have.
Working closely with faculty members also benefits students in that they are afforded a bird's eye view into the world of college professors. Rather than watch us do research, they are permitted to participate with us in action. Countless hours have been spent with student co-authors in their computer labs and our offices. During these visits, they are given the opportunity to see what life is like as a college professor. Perhaps not coincidentally, many of our undergraduate co-authors have opted for graduate education. We believe that the project helped make them more well-rounded. Indeed, as Reed, McCarthy, and Briley (2002) note, collaborating with students "improves the quality of the student writing, models collaborative behaviors, [and] develops leadership skills."
Benefits of Collaborating with Students for Professors
Professors writing with students will also enjoy a number of benefits that they would not necessarily experience writing with their colleagues. One benefit has to do with the faculty member's role as mentor. Serving as a co-author with students automatically places faculty members in the position of an active mentor. This is a role whose importance cannot be understated. Many faculty members once were students themselves who looked to their own professors for direction and guidance. It is only fitting that faculty members take their own students under their wings and show them the ins and outs of writing, creative endeavors, research, and publishing. To us, publishing with students has been among the most rewarding aspects of our careers. We are able to merge our teaching skills and our research skills into one project. As mentors, one might say that the result of combining the two has a synergistic effect--we feel rewarded as teachers and researchers, and we are given hope that we can continue such projects with other students.
Beyond the pure satisfaction that comes along with teaching and researching, professors receive some practical benefits from including students as co-authors. In a time of tight state budgets, many of us have foregone the use of graduate research assistants. With no help from graduate students, our research becomes that much more difficult. But alas, when we engage our students in research and work collaboratively with them, we are provided with co-authors who are actively able to more than make up for the fact that assistantships are not available to us.
We do not mean to suggest that students in our classes should serve as graduate assistants. After all, we believe it is more useful to have students serve as active co-authors rather than passive assistants who do as we tell them to do. In this sense, active co-authors are able to provide us with more benefits than traditional research assistants might. In fact, since their grades are determined by their productivity in the course, student co-authors may actually take co-authorship more seriously than some graduate assistants.
Also note that faculty benefit from student co-authors in that they are able to bring a sense of imagination and excitement to the project that faculty members would not have working on their own or with their colleagues. Albert Einstein once said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." We don't mean to disparage our colleagues or ourselves, but the active imaginations of our students (the topics they want to study, the strategies they want to use, the implications of their findings, etc.) often far exceed what we would be able to do on our own.
In one case, for example, one of us worked with students who were wanted to examine how different groups responded to random acts of kinds. The students passed out roses randomly to 144 individuals and observed how those receiving the rose reacted to this kindness. Incidentally, this research found that females responded more positively to these random acts than males. Without our students, we would never have had the time or ambition to carry out such a project. Undergraduate students in particular seem to be willing to take chances in their research, tackling studies and projects that we likely would have avoided.
On a related matter, it is important to note that we learn a great deal ourselves through collaborating with our students. We learn, for instance, about students’ interests. While some of our students wanted to research risky behaviors like drug use and unsafe sex, others have wanted to study attitudes about other controversial issues. Do male and female strippers perceive their jobs differently? What factors influence individuals' decisions to get tattoos? Do students lie about their grade point averages on surveys? These topics aren’t necessarily in our areas of expertise, but working with students we develop a keener sense of the issues related to these topics. In addition, working with undergraduates has turned us on to ideas and strategies that may have fallen out of our research repertoire.
Many of our students have wanted to try different field research strategies, for example. In the stripper study noted above, students went to thirty-three strip clubs to interview strippers about their careers. About half of the owners of the establishments allowed the students to interview their workers. In all, fifty-six strippers participated in the interviews. Gaining access to this particular field setting was difficult and time consuming. Moreover, it is very likely that the participants in the study were more honest with the student interviewers (two female students) than they would been with a faculty interviewer. Neither of us had used field methods since graduate school. Still, we were able to dig deep into our memories, and old textbooks, to offer our students assistance in developing and implementing their field project. It was refreshing to have students be the source of our own renewed interest in these strategies. In essence, co-authoring with students challenges us to see research through their eyes, which subsequently allows us to maintain a fresh perspective about research, writing, and creative endeavors.
Another benefit we have seen from engaging students as co-authors is that students seem to take the projects more seriously when they know that we are willing to work with them. We are not entirely sure why this occurs. From a sociological perspective, it could be that because we have defined the project as important by expressing our willingness to work on the project with them, that they too decide to define the project as important. Or, it could be that they appreciate working closely with their instructors and simply use "impression management strategies" (Goffman 1959) to express their interest in the project. Impression management strategies are activities individuals engage in with the aim of controlling how others perceive them. Impression management strategies may allow the students to control our perceptions of them so that students appear to be researchers in their own right. It has been our experience, for example, that those who have lap tops tend to make sure they bring them when group meetings are held. In many cases, students even dress more professionally for these meetings than they usually dress as if to convey that they were taking the projects seriously. The fact that students seem to take the project seriously makes it more worthwhile for faculty members as well.
A final benefit that evolves for faculty members co-authoring with students is that the projects are potentially publishable. With evaluations, raises, and promotions tied to one's publishing record, we get great satisfaction out of getting projects co-authored with students published in scholarly journals. This satisfaction, however, is not limited to the pecuniary aspects of our careers. Instead, we are now able to encourage students to work hard on their projects with promises that we will help them get their research published should the projects be worthy. The fact that we can tell them that fellow students have gotten their collaborative research projects published gives us a level of respect that we had not previously had, or at least noticed, from our students. In effect, these practices appear to improve the “credibility” we have with our students (Cohen 1964).
We have made it sound as if writing with students is the best thing since sliced bread. To be sure, there are a number of problems that come up. For instance, if professors occasionally have problems working with one another as we know they do (James-Enger 2001), then it should not be surprising that students may have problems working with one another.
Reed et al. described some problems they had in developing co-authoring relationships with students. First, they noted that a semester timeframe made it difficult to complete the writing project. Second, they noted that problems of role ambiguity for the professor made it difficult for the professor not to step in and try to help out more than would be needed. Third, they recognized that collaborative projects with students must be supported by the college or university administration in order for it to be valuable for the instructor. Finally, they argued that professors ensure that the goal of such a process is teaching rather than publication. To be sure, though, professors can accomplish both goals by collaborating with students.
A few other obstacles we have encountered when we have written with students include the following:
¢ Students are not always interested in working with faculty members.
¢ A lack of understanding about the importance of writing makes it difficult to get students interested in the process.
¢ Faculty members can be given the task of doing the bulk of the writing.
¢ Students may not feel comfortable giving critical feedback to their professors (Payne and Monk-Turner 2004).
In order for collaborative projects to be successful, Austin and Baldwin (1992) believe four steps should be followed. First, the team or group members must be selected. Some authors note that group members should be selected based on their interests and skills. Having students with similar interests and skills working together reduces the likelihood of group conflict. In the past, we have had them select their own groups, but have seen cases in which friendships have ended because of the conflict. Therefore, we recommend that professors devise a strategy to decide on the group members.
Second, the division of labor must be defined. Group members must be assigned their specific tasks and decide how to work together to carry out those tasks. This division, according to Austin and Baldwin, should strive to ensure that all group participants are doing similar amounts of work. This includes the professors. While we encourage students to assign group leaders, we also make sure they know that final decisions always rest with us.
Third, guidelines should be established and agreed upon by all participants. These guidelines should be established by the group members with input from the professor. It is best that these guidelines are written so that each student knows the expectations their peers have of them. Allowing the students to develop their own rules will keep students from claiming that they did not understand the guidelines. Elsewhere, we have noted that students may be resistant to critiquing a professor's writing (Payne and Monk-Turner 2004). Students must be told that they can give critical feedback to faculty members on these projects.
Finally, after the project has been completed, Austin and Baldwin note that the project must be terminated. One of the difficulties that arises, however, is that it is not always clear when a project is terminated. When co-authoring with students, most of them will be graduated by the time the paper is accepted for publication. If the paper receives a revise and resubmit, the professor may be on his or her own in further developing the case. Indeed, it has been our experience that labor was divided in such a way that students do most of the work in the beginning stages of collaborative projects, with some faculty guidance, and professors do most of the work in the end stages of these projects. Ending any project is satisfying. Ending a project in which we worked with students is both satisfying and rewarding.
In this paper, we have considered the benefits of collaborating with students on writing and research projects. Both students and faculty members have much to gain from such collaborations. Students will obtain an experience and knowledge they otherwise would not necessarily obtain. They will also develop relationships with their fellow students that will better prepare them for the collaborative working environment. At the same time, professors benefit from these experiences because they too will learn a great deal about topics they had either forgotten about or had never really honed. Professors, and students, will also appreciate the opportunity to publish their collaborative efforts. Working together, and using one another's strengths, collaborative projects allow faculty and students to produce products and knowledge that otherwise may have never existed.
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