Why I Decided to Find a Publisher for My College Students' Papers

Mr. Alexander is an Associate Professor of History at Providence College.

American POW Memoirs from the Revolutionary War through the Vietnam War, a collection of fourteen papers written by students in an undergraduate seminar that I developed, was published by Wipf and Stock Publishers in March. 1 The seminar in which the papers were written was offered for one semester. It was an ordinary seminar open to juniors and seniors. It was not an honors seminar.

The idea of designing a seminar for a publication outcome occurred to me after I took four students from another seminar to present papers at the 2004 annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians concerning American views of Chief Justice John Marshall. The students’ quality presentations led me to wonder if the differences between undergraduate and graduate students were differences of motivation, experience with historical scholarship, and focus rather than differences of intelligence and ability. I decided to attempt to design an undergraduate seminar that would mitigate undergraduates' weaknesses and play to their strong points. I thought that motivation might be enhanced if the seminar included the possibility of a publication outcome, and I thought that the lack of focus resulting from so many conflicting demands on undergraduates' time might be reduced if the seminar required several drafts and oral presentations of the writing assignment. I thought that undergraduates' inexperience with historical scholarship might be mitigated if the students were given precisely described and focused writing assignments.

I selected American POW memoirs for the writing assignment because these texts tend not to be overly technical and because I thought that papers written about POW memoirs would cohere into a topic of interest. I developed an inventory for students to use in analyzing the POW memoirs they were assigned and an outline for the first draft that included a model first draft. (The inventory, outline and model provided students with a specific list or research and analysis tasks, a form in which to record their findings, and an outline with a model for composing a report or first draft of their findings. These three handouts provided the seminar students with the type of specific directions that students in the natural sciences might find in a laboratory manual.) Given the time the students had to complete the writing assignment and the research resources available it was important to focus on the texts of the POW memoirs by analyzing such features as how internment is described, how the author’s self and other selves are constructed, how the narrative is framed, and how the narrative is constructed.

The possibility of a publication outcome motivated the students to persevere through the process of rewriting and rethinking and rewriting again, although two students chose to withdraw from the project. The inventory and the first draft outline with a model empowered the students to prepare coherent first drafts that basically corresponded with the writing assignment. The seminar requirement of three drafts and two oral reports provided the opportunity to address specific problems with particular memoirs, to polish and to correct the first drafts. The student in the seminar who had the greatest difficulty writing the POW memoir paper was in a seminar I taught the following semester and wrote a fine paper with no difficulty. Perhaps the intensity involved in preparing papers for publication provides the opportunity for a teaching moment that might not occur in a regular seminar. In an interview about the publication of American POW Memoirs in the college newspaper one student remarked about writing the paper, “I revised it a lot more than my normal papers and worked a lot more with the professor.”2

The published papers read like undergraduate papers, but they exhibit a degree of perception about the issues of narrative construction less often found in undergraduate writing, and the book makes a small addition to the literature about American POW memoirs because eleven of the memoirs examined in the book have not been considered previously in scholarly literature.

I thought that it was important that the student papers cohere into a topic of interest in order to achieve the goal of publication. American veterans’ autobiographies seemed like an interesting seminar topic because an earlier examination of all the titles found by searching American History and Life using the search word, “autobiography,” suggested that there was no published study of veterans’ narratives from several wars.3 In the course of preparing the seminar I decided to direct the students to write on POW memoirs because I thought they would be likely to describe similar incidents and this similarity would enhance the coherence of the resulting papers.

As a result of previous experience with publishers I assumed that a proposal to publish a collection of student papers would be a more viable project for a publisher that had a print on demand type operation than it would be for a commercial or university publisher. I discussed the general concept with several editors at academic conventions in the beginning of 2005. As I developed the seminar syllabus in the fall of 2005 it was possible to discuss a specific proposal with editors at the academic conventions I attended. Dr. K. C. Hanson of Wipf and Stock Publishers expressed interest in the proposal. I maintained an email correspondence with Dr. Hanson while the seminar was in progress to keep him informed about developments and to obtain answers regarding the implementation of Wipf and Stock’s style sheet. (Questions about the style sheet arose because the students prepared their papers according to Wipf and Stock’s style after the first draft.)

During June and July I had a lively email correspondence with the students as I wrote the introduction, consolidated the student papers into one manuscript, checked quoted matter, and finalized permissions to quote copyrighted sources. (Although it is not customary to obtain permission to quote phrases or a few sentences in academic type publications, I thought some experience in requesting permission would be useful to the students. About half of the students were able to complete the permissions process, but some of the permissions were difficult to obtain because the copyright holders were deceased or out of business. I completed these difficult permission requests for the students.) I emailed the final manuscript to Dr. Hanson in July; received a contract a few weeks later, and the proofs a few weeks after that. The book was released about three weeks after the final proofs were corrected and the cover design approved. It was the unanimous agreement of all the participants in the seminar that any royalties resulting from the publication of the book would be given to the International Red Cross, an organization with a mission to help POWs, in the unlikely event that a book of papers from an undergraduate seminar received any royalties. (A written form of this agreement was drafted and signed by the students and by me at the first meeting of the seminar.)

American POW Memoirs from the Revolutionary War through the Vietnam War seems to be the first time that papers from an undergraduate seminar have been published as a book. As is the case with many firsts, there are glitches and awkward moments, but the book illustrates how a college seminar might move beyond training students in scholarly practice to giving students a first experience as scholarly practitioners. The book will interest professors thinking of incorporating a publication outcome into the seminars they teach. The book is of interest to the field of life writing, and to a lesser extent the field of military history. Because the narrative construction of POW memoirs from America’s major wars has not previously been examined in one place, the book makes a modest contribution toward understanding how Americans have constructed their POW memoirs. Considered overall the fourteen papers suggest that the contexts in which authors write POW memoirs may influence the character of the memoirs they write as much as the attributes of their POW experiences.

1 The authors of the fourteen POW memoirs examined in the book are: Ethan Allen, Belle Boyd, William A. Berry, Albert P. Cark, Dorothy S. Danner, Jeremiah Denton, William F. Dean, James N. Hall, Richmond P. Hobson, Solon Hyde, John H. King, John McCain, John A. Scott, and Amos Stearns.

2The Cowl, March 29, 2004, page 2, column 2.

3 Search made March 10, 2003 (626 titles of books, dissertations and articles examined).

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