Motivation versus Inspiration: Behind the Curtain of Student Publishing

Motivation versus Inspiration: Behind the Curtain of Student Publishing

“What does an eighteen-year-old know about policy?”

I’ve heard it said in many different ways, but the implication is the same: college students are simply not capable of meaningful analyses. I suppose that means teens Malala Yousafzai--who was shot in the head for advocating on behalf of girls’ education--and Jack Andraka--who developed an inexpensive pancreatic cancer diagnostic strip--are time travelers with the insights of their older selves.

No, of course not.

The truth is that youth is no barrier to great thinking. More importantly, I expect that youth not serve as a barrier. Great thinking in the young (or old) is not just the byproduct of anomaly, which is why I urge my students in Writing & Rhetoric to author something during the course that matters to them, a point of view they want considered in the broader public. I ask them, “Why not change the world right now?”

“But that can’t be all you do,” my colleagues respond. “How do you persuade students to seek publication of their argumentative essays?”

Obviously, I instruct them in academic writing and research. However, beyond that, I use these strategies that, together, make the difference.

  • I believe in showing, not telling: I bring a diversity of writers to my classroom to talk about their process and experiences--after students have read their published work.

  • I give students plenty of freedom to choose their topic so they’ll be passionate about the work.

  • I remind them to question everything! After spending class time examining a research study that is incorrectly summarized in the media, or fallible because of unsound methods or controls, students scrutinize sources more carefully and become much more invested in them.

  • I emphasize that students’ arguments should star in their writing. I tell them, “Become the source, don’t just tell your readers about what others have written.”

  • I try not to correct students’ ideas but instead explore them. I say, “Your thinking is not flawed; what you will learn is how to articulate your ideas such that an academic audience can best access them.”

  • I showcase works of former students who have written outstanding essays, especially those that were published.

  • I urge them to write with the intention of publishing their essays.

  • Rinse and repeat.

I’ve wanted – and tried – to evolve the world since I was in my single digits questioning why homeless people couldn’t simply live in the empty buildings that never seemed to have tenants. (My mother’s answer: “It’s complicated.”) Memories of my youthful efforts and those adults who supported me lead me to what I think is the most important factor: I genuinely believe in my students’ abilities to make a difference.

Here’s what a couple of them have to say:

“I didn't really consider the possibility of publishing coming into your class, and I was still a little skeptical, but you kept mentioning that we should try to get published, and not in an arbitrary way to get us to write better. You seemed legitimately convinced that we could, so I guess you convinced me it was possible too.”

“When I arrived at Stanford my first quarter, I had no plan, expectation, or even the idea to publish a piece of my own. …. Then one day in class [you] showed us a video about a teenage boy [Jack Andraka] who discovered a new medical diagnostic test for cancer, and [you] said that we can do the same. [You] also told us to write our [essays] as if we were going to publish them. At that time, I made that personal and tried to write publishable material. This became less of a required class assignment and turned into a personal project.”

Students have practical considerations as well…

“I'm almost certainly going to be writing research papers and trying to get them published being a physics major, and I feel going into that having somewhat experienced it before would be pretty valuable.”

… along with excitement about the possibilities.

“I'd also just love to get something I've written printed in an actual publication. I'd be ecstatic seeing it.”

In the end, something as simple as believing in students can change what they think they can accomplish.

“[You] had the ability to make me comfortable to do my own thing, discover my own way of doing it, and make me confident enough to be bold. [You] let us know that [you] believed in us numerous times.”

“[Y]ou weren't as much of a motivation as you were an inspiration.”

These reflections bring me back to expectations. If I didn’t expect young adults to contribute to global conversations, I couldn’t inspire them to believe in themselves enough to add their voices. As one student put it, “I don’t believe I’ve ever been told so directly + genuinely that no problem is too large for my voice – any young voice – to make a sound, and an important sound.”

I support my students’ success in publishing their essays with my expectations of them along with scaffolded instruction to reach that explicit goal. As a result, students from my courses in just this last year have submissions pending in the Stanford Undergraduate Research Journal, published in the Stanford Journal of Public Health and STATIC, and won a Boothe Prize for Excellence in First-Year Writing. When the work in the classroom moves toward publication, it is no surprise to me that students will see their names in print…even if it is to them.

Kathleen Tarr, Ph.D.  Photo courtesy of Kathleen Tarr.Kathleen Tarr is a lecturer in Stanford's Program in Writing and Rhetoric.


After reading this article, author (!) Jenna Shapiro emailed me that she published her research paper from my course in CONTEXTS, the Stanford Undergraduate Research Journal in Anthropology. "Out of Fashion: Racial Diversity" can be found at on pages 29-33. Congratulations! I hope all of my students are as proud of themselves as I am. :)

Yet another undergrad student-writer hits the published pages. Congratulations, Kathleen, and to Jenna as well!