Seminar Papers and Pubs: Revise, revise, revise

Academic publishing invites more failure than success, and this failure can make the practice feel like a treacherous landscape where junior faculty have to earn their maps. Whether the sentiment is Publish or Perish! or Publish and Flourish!, the intent is the same: As an academic, you better publish.
The way through is even murkier for graduate students, whose acclimation to academia may or may not include attention to professional expectations like publishing. Most grad students will produce article-length pieces for individual professors to evaluate against particular criteria in the specific context of a course. Without significant revision, though, most seminar papers are generally unsuitable for publication in peer-reviewed journals. In this post, I’ll outline three major points of revision for graduate students looking to revise seminar papers into publishable articles.

Most seminar papers are generously read as approximations of academic discourse, as they should be. As a genre, they’re intended to provide practice for novice scholars in inventing novel arguments, showing (ever-growing) sophisticated depths of understanding, and producing fluent prose using appropriate sources. Seminar papers often rely on a set of shared course texts, are produced under duress and on compressed timelines, are responsive to specific criteria, and are often exempt from the kinds of sharp criticism visited on journal submissions. A seminar paper that earns high marks in a graduate-level class is, at best, a very rough draft of a potential journal article.
The point to keep in mind is this: Revising from seminar paper to publication will transform a text that meets one set of requirements into one that needs to meet an entirely different—more stringent, more demanding, far more incisive—set of expectations. A seminar paper written for a specific class will necessarily work to make a student’s understanding visible in the context of the course.  A journal article must meet the expectations of a specific journal’s editor and audience.  Before addressing revisions, the savvy grad student will survey a range of disciplinary journals to get a sense for which one(s) may be open to the topic and treatment. This student will read copious published articles from those journals to gain a sense for the editor’s expectations. Revisions will be responsive to these considerations.

Problem: A tired or naïve argument
An argument interesting enough to earn a high mark in a graduate course may, in the competitive world of academic publishing, be disingenuous, naive, or tired.  It’s often the case that the key arguments made in seminar papers are influenced by both time and course constraints and thus overlook important strands or reject more compelling arguments in favor of those that better show a student’s reading knowledge. 
Revision: A revision for argument would look at the central argument as contributing to ongoing conversations in academia, in journal articles but also in edited collections, monographs, conference proceedings, and any another professional discourse. Further, the publishable article presents a timely argument. The most compelling point to reviewers or to a general academic audience may not be the author’s idea of the most compelling point. Read, read, read current scholarship and scour bibliographies to get a sense for extant arguments. Search, search, search databases (both university and discipline-specific, like CompPile) for prior iterations of the topic to see how the current topic may add to what the community knows or thinks about that topic. Academic research is intended to push the edges of understanding, even if it’s just a bit. 

Problem: Uncritical or irrelevant source use            
Seminar papers may be light on mapping the scholarly landscape, since both students and professors work from a set of shared texts. Seminar papers may thus elide larger, more important, or more compelling arguments in favor of arguments that better meet the course’s objectives. Sources may be skimmed for content and important quotes, instead of being read carefully to note nuances in argument and implications of that argument. Sources may also be chosen because they were available, because they were expected to be used as a part of the course, or because the student (or professor) really enjoyed the argument (even if the argument doesn’t best contribute to the overall goals of the seminar paper). Misunderstandings or misreadings, even of a single source, can create a sense of sloppiness or uncritical reading practices. 

Revision: Sources need to be updated to include the most relevant to the topic and core argument, not only those sources used in the course or those sources that were easiest or quickest to find. Reviewers will assume that the author has carefully read and understood each and every source he/she employs in service of his/her argument.  Search, search, search for sources related, even tangentially, to the core argument.

Problem: Overwrought tone and imprecise prose.
Seminar papers lend themselves to the kind of academic overwriting that journal reviewers might tag as unclear or imprecise. In many ways, seminar-paper-ese provides examples of how graduate students invent their own universities by mimicking the inflated language and looping structure of published authors. What’s lost in translation is often clarity of thought, as ideas become masked by imprecise language.

Revision: Imprecise language is often a symptom of unclear or unfinished thinking. It may be that spending more time in invention renders more clear language, however a writing group (or even just a single writing partner) can cue authors into the places where they slip into the textual abyss.

These three problem areas are, of course, interconnected and should be viewed as recursive processes.

The pace at which graduate students are expected to produce seminar papers may demote important Writing-to-Learn (WTL) processes and crowd out moments of authentic discovery; at the same time, because the seminar paper is a genre completely constrained by graduate courses, these products may be assessed highly against other examples of the genre. This assessment could convey a sense that a seminar paper is suitable for publication without significant revision. Attention to shifting genre expectations—from seminar paper to journal article—may begin the revision process so that graduate students can enter academic conversations with some sense of the landscape ahead.