I Teach, Therefore I Edit

by Camille Issacs

Published at 2010-09-23

In my life outside of TEC, I also work as a sessional English instructor, meaning I am hired on a sessional (or semester by semester) basis to teach courses for which full-time (usually tenured) staff is not available. I’ve done this for a number of years and it’s a good way to add variety to my working life.
I have taught upper- and lower-level genre courses at a well-established university. I have taught Canadian, world, and diasporic literature courses at an arts college. And I have taught basic communication skills at a community college.
What my teaching and editorial work seem to have in common is a desire to either appreciate or master the English language.
Although I keep my two jobs quite separate, there are parts of my teaching work that are not that far removed from my editing work. Marking my students’ essays (regardless of their level) is not much different from copy-editing.
In both instances, I’m often indicating comma splices, fragmented and run-on sentences, awkward phrasing, and subject–verb agreement errors. In teaching, I’m marking these errors for the students so they can learn to correct themselves. In editing, I’m making the changes myself for the readability of the text. But the skill set is the same.
I spend more time than I would like with the minutiae of either APA or MLA citation style. Making sure that a comma or period is appropriately placed can be as challenging an experience for me as it is for my students.
But my students’ questions reinforce my love of English and warns me not to take it for granted. They remind me that I still need to work at English: the better I am able to teach English, the better I can use it.
In my basic communication classes, I often encounter ESL students and their questions keep me on my toes. One student asked me why “twenty-three” is hyphenated, but “two hundred” is not. I had to really think to give my earnest student a response. I knew what was right instinctively, but how does one teach instinct? I had to go back to my childhood instruction and try to remember what the “rule” was. You can’t teach instinct, but you can teach rules.
Another student asked me why we say “at noon,” “at midnight,” “at night,” but not “at morning.” What could I say, other than it’s not a standard English expression. I did tell her she could say “at dawn,” after I had explained what “dawn” was.
What I have found is that one job reinforces the other. Teaching requires me to investigate what I take as a given as a native English speaker. My ESL students often complain about how hard English is to learn, how unpredictable and irregular it is. Trying to find the words to give them explanations has helped me to better understand English. I am a better editor because of my teaching and because of the students with whom I interact. And I would like to think that my editing has made me a better teacher.