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Creating a Textbook: From Class Projects to Publication

    By Faith Billinger, Autumn Tashman, and Ben Wielechowski


    Ben Wielechowski

    During the spring of 2021, I embarked on a collaborative process with a handful of former students to put together a textbook that catered better to the Narrative Journalism course I teach at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. The genesis for this project began with student feedback and recommendations that the current textbooks were “okay,” but students “could have gone without them.” This feedback, plus the price tag attached to textbooks, along with a grant opportunity made possible through the Open Educational Resources (OER) Task Force, compelled me to decide to customize a free textbook for future students of Narrative Journalism. This consisted of my instructional material combined with former students’ work.

    While I knew I would be solely responsible for putting the textbook together (with the help of the University’s OER Task Force, of course, namely Autumm Caines and Raya Samet), I would be collaborating and communicating with former students as I requested work to be featured in the publication. The collaboration would continue indefinitely as new students utilized the textbook, providing feedback and lending new work to be featured in the publication. This was all planned and expected.

    What I did not expect was how this collaboration between student and instructor had actually begun months before, as those students began to create their final projects. In pursuing the OER textbook project and listening to the contributors (i.e. the students) explain their process in creating their work, I realized how everything that occurs within the classroom is a collaborative process between students and instructors, even while it often feels hidden behind the student-teacher framework. For me, this only became clear through this venture of producing an explicitly collaborative project together. This pushed me to reevaluate the student-instructor relationship in profound and instructive ways.


    Ben Wielechowski

    The OER text is equal parts instruction and example. The instruction within the text is the same material that appears in my lectures, generated by me through much reading and study and collaboration with other instructors. The examples were all provided by former students, examples that were in response to assignment prompts and requirements. Much of the time this feels like a one-way street, all orchestrated by the instructor, for the instructor.

    When I requested permission to incorporate student work into the OER textbook, students responded very enthusiastically, and we worked together to get their desired versions into the text, while discussing what ‘open source’ sharing of their work might mean. I noticed a distinct change in attitude towards the assignments. Many students returned to their work for revisions even after the semester concluded. These partnerships continued through the publication of the book, and they still continue (like in this co-authored article about the project). These collaborative efforts have only strengthened my appreciation of students as partners in everything that happens within the classroom.

    Autumn Tashman

    I’ve never really enjoyed school projects or writing essays. I often find them boring and especially difficult to enjoy completing. I’ve also never come across a class quite like Professor Wielechowski’s Narrative Journalism class, however. Professor Wielechowski shined light on class projects in a completely unique way, and it was one that really sparked my interest in the class and the projects that we worked on.

    We had three main projects to complete throughout the course of the semester. While I enjoyed working on all three projects, it was the second and third that allowed me to take a step back and understand the importance of deviating from the norm when it comes to journalism and writing in general. My second project was laid out in a podcast format, and my topic was the dangers of social media and the negative effect it has on its primary audience. I think that Professor Wielechowski’s class was built around thinking outside of the box and moving away from the generic essay that everyone gets bored of writing. Instead, we were given the creative liberty to design a project that we wanted to create, and that’s what really allowed me to enjoy working on my podcast. I’ve never created a podcast before, so the time I’d spent on putting all the pieces together (finding TikTok sounds to incorporate into the background, adding music, and of course, adding the talking points of the podcast) was quite a bit. Unusually enough, I didn’t mind that it took me as long as it did because I’d been working on something that I actually wanted to complete, and that’s not something I can really say about the rest of the projects I’ve completed throughout my schooling. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to complete and submit a project before, and while it can be hard for me to bear listening to the sound of my own voice, I was beyond eager to share my project with future students to hopefully give them inspiration for their own.

    While the third and final project was quite different from the first two, it was just as exciting to put together. We were given the requirements of including three forms of media, 2,000 words, and a total of five primary and secondary sources. I decided to create a website on some of Northern Michigan’s best cities to visit (from a possibly slightly-biased opinion). While I figured it would take some time to figure out the features of the website, my thoughts before creating my website were that it wouldn’t take too much time. The further I dove into my project, though, the more features I wanted to include, and I don’t think I even realized how much I’d actually put into it until reviewing the final product. The sole explanation for this is that I was having fun with the project, and as previously mentioned, that’s a very bold statement coming from me. Like the second project, this project took quite a bit of time and effort, but I can confidently say that it was one of the best projects I’ve ever created.

    Faith Billinger

    When I first began to generate ideas for this project, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to cover. I had recently begun using TikTok to pass a lot of my time because of Covid and got a chance to see the many different ways that people choose to express themselves. A lot of people explained that they express themselves now because they had the freedom to do so and not feel judged.

    This led to me developing my idea of exploring the different ways people express themselves through their fashion choices because there are so many different options for people to have thanks to social media. I felt that instead of encouraging people to conform to one way of dressing, social media encourages people to try new things and styles that they are comfortable with and that give them the freedom of expression.

    In my process developing this, I had to ask myself what kinds of things would people want to know about others who are expressing themselves through their fashion choices. I figured the best questions to ask would revolve around what may have inspired or influenced their choices, their favorite kinds of styles, and more.

    After asking myself these questions I didn’t feel like I had enough material and decided to expand my audience and participant pool. I decided to go with the broad idea of expression, not only through the way that they dress, but also through what they create. After a bit of fine tuning, I was finally able to get my questions together and begin to find people that wanted to participate.

    Originally I wanted to set this project up as a blog, but I instead decided to create an Instagram account. To me, this idea really went with my theme of how social media has influenced people to express themselves, and I thought the best way to showcase that was by using a social media platform.

    Interviewing was probably one of the more challenging aspects of this project. Trying to work around other people’s schedules while also taking your own into consideration made it hard for me to go the traditional route of meeting someone, especially with Covid. I instead settled for either interviewing in real-time or just sending my list of questions for people to respond to when they were able.

    After gathering all of my participant information as well as my research on the background of aesthetics, expressionism, and the authentic self, I was able to move onto the most fun and tedious portion, designing everyone’s posts. Using Procreate on my iPad, I was able to make all of my posts which had at least five slides a piece. I found colors that suited the pictures participants provided to use as background colors and used Photoshop to cut and paste images I was provided by participants, and other little aspects to try to make each post fun.

    All of my posts on fashion include both interview responses as well as images that each person sent, allowing people to see the voice behind the answers while also showcasing their style. I had two participants who expressed themselves only through their art. Those posts each have doubles as the first shows their responses and the second shows their work which was animation for one person and photography for another.

    Something that I found across all responses was that by embracing the way they expressed themselves, everyone had gained a sense of confidence. It was important to me to get across the point that a person doesn’t have to do anything a specific way as long as it makes them happy and feel good about themselves. Being able to dress and create in ways that allows an individual to express themselves is the most important takeaway from this project and that there is no wrong way to do so.


    Autumn Tashman

    After Professor Wielechowski reached out to me asking if I’d like my work to be featured in the textbook he was creating, I was ecstatic. My work has never been used as an example for a writing class before, let alone a feature in an entire textbook. As a math major, I often find myself spiraling into a never-ending pit of numbers, and Narrative Journalism gave me a healthy break from that. The class was fun and engaging, and though we were in the heart of the pandemic when I’d taken the course, Professor Wielechowski was always more than willing to help answer any questions we may have had about any of the projects. I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to take this course and learn more about how to apply narrative journalism to different aspects of everyday life. I’ve learned so much from this course, and Professor Wielechowski has helped open my eyes to the enjoyment of narrative writing! Writing is so much more than essays and following the rules of the assignment, and this is something that Professor Wielechowski helped me see.

    Ben Wielechowski

    Working so closely with students outside of the student/teacher framework, outside of the grades and the classroom and all of the constraints that exist because of that framework, I was impressed and inspired by the care and thought each student put into their projects. These weren’t just assignments for grades to these students. Rather, they were forms of expression, storytelling opportunities, and passion projects. Through this process, both student and teacher were developing: me as a student and students as teachers and leaders. This shared responsibility is crucial to a dynamic and fulfilling classroom experience, and through this collaborative project of putting together an OER textbook for future students by former students, my understanding and appreciation of students as partners has only deepened and will continue to do so.