Students Teach Publishers About the Digital Future

May 25, 2012


Article ImageWith student loan debt recently topping out at $1 trillion, and the next wave of fresh-faced college graduates taking their newly-inked diplomas straight to the unemployment line, the question of whether higher education is worth the effort, time, and money is on many people's minds. The equation used to be so simple: go to college, complete a degree, and get a job. Not anymore. Luckily, for students with dreams of finding careers in the competitive world of publishing, all hope isn't lost. The Champlain College Publishing Initiative, a student-centric publishing company based at Champlain College, not only teaches students about the publishing industry, it turns them into editors, designers, and publishers, all before they even step foot off campus.

When Tim Brookes, founder and editor-in-chief of Champlain College Publishing, took over as director of the professional writing program at Champlain College, one of the first things he realized was: "if you are going to teach in a writing program, especially if you are going to direct a writing program, you have to give a lot of thought to what students need to learn in order to survive and flourish as writers. What that means is that they really need to learn about the writing profession and the writing business." Brookes also knew that the publishing world was changing and changing fast, and that if he really wanted to prepare his students for success, just covering traditional publishing wouldn't cut it. That is when Brookes, with the help of other communications and creative media professionals, decided to start a student-run publishing company.

According to Brookes, "Having spent some time in New York publishing and having seen the way in which entry level job applicants are treated, I really liked the idea that we might be able to teach our students a set of skills that mean when they graduate they are not going to fall into that exploitation trap. They are going to be at the front of things, rather than at the bottom." In the absence of a comprehensive textbook to use for his classes, Brooke's saw an opportunity. "I realized that what we could do is start writing and publishing textbooks for use in our own classes. What this would mean is that the students that were in the class using this book then became the proofreaders and editors for the next edition."

It didn't take long for Brookes' students to get their hands dirty. As Brookes notes, "We have this thing at Champlain College called ‘the gulp moment,' where I say to say somebody, ‘do you know how to do so and so' and they'll say ‘no,' and I'll say ‘I need you to do it by Wednesday.' They do this gulp and then they figure it out." The first book Champlain College Publishing produced was an anthology of creative non-fiction written by students of Brookes over the years. This was only the beginning. Soon other projects started popping up, launching Brookes' students head first into the world of digital publishing.

For example, as Brookes explains, "This last semester we worked with this colleague of mine at a neighboring institution, who's already done a traditional college text book translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. He and I started talking about something that was much more than an ebook. I said, ‘wouldn't it be much more interesting if it were interactive?'" During the course of the semester Brookes' students created a clickable glossary for the textbook, added rich text that linked up with artwork so readers could see artwork that has been inspired over the ages by the Divine Comedy, and they even added an audio clip in English and audio clip in Italian. And they won't stop there. "Next semester we're going to try and publish this book as an app," says Brookes. 

Champlain College Publishing students have web experience as well. In 2010, in collaboration with the American Academy of Pediatrics and Writers Without Borders, Brookes had his students create a year-long web-based project that gathered first-hand accounts of children's healthcare from the developing world and published them online called The World's Children Online. "We spent that 9 months soliciting material and publishing all kinds of stuff, including things like photo galleries," explains Brookes. "It started really getting recognized as a medium of communication."

Aside from publishing textbooks and building websites, Brookes' students have also become teachers. When Brookes was invited to the annual conference of Independent Publishers of New England, which attracts many publishers who work in the print realm, he told the conference committee he'd like to bring his students along. "I told them what I'd really like to do is bring a group of my students and to have them run workshops for your publishers in the digital end of publishing. I took four students down. We had one student run a workshop on how to create and maintain a basic Wordpress website. Another student gave an advanced tutorial in more sophisticated uses of Wordpress and Google Analytics, and that was packed. And one student ran a workshop on blogging, which may sound really like ‘duh,' but the fact is, in traditional publishing blogging is the enemy."

As the students hone their skills as editors, designers, and publishers, Champlain College Publishing has built its reputation on being experts in modern publishing. "Some people hire us. We have clients who come in and have either general requests or specific requests. They want to know about internet marketing or maybe something really traditional, like the advantages of digital printing. We're firing all over the place," says Brookes. And so far, the experience has been nothing but positive. "We hear from all over the world about Champlain Publishing. There's just a general sense of excitement. What we hear a whole lot from people, especially people in publishing, is ‘I wish this had been around when I was in school.' The great success of this whole enterprise has been that our students, and by now 250 of them or more, have been involved in some aspect of producing some sort of published product."

("Three students" image courtesy of Shutterstock.)