First Year Writers

The biggest thing I’ve learned from teaching a first year seminar is how freshman writing differs from upper class writing. Today I handed back the second formal paper my students have written and here is what I told them:

The biggest flaw I saw in your papers, from the best paper to the worst, is that you didn’t develop your ideas enough; you didn’t think more deeply about your topic. How does one bake bread? Answer: Mix and knead the ingredients, let the dough rise, bake and enjoy! How does one make wine? Answer: Crush the grapes, add yeast, let it age, drink and enjoy! Writing is like baking bread or making wine. After you start it, you need to put it aside to give it time to mature, rise, age.

First year writers tend to put their thoughts down and be done with it. That may be all they know. They don’t seem to understand that writing is a creative process; a writer doesn’t write what they already know; rather the process of writing/thinking creates new insights which the writer can discover through the composition process. Of course this takes patience, as well as planning so that one doesn’t wait until the night before the assignment is due to start.

If one doesn’t know that the process is productive, it may not make sense to wait before putting the paper to bed. We need to explain this to students as explicitly as we can, especially when we are teaching first year students. I certainly never learned this in high school or frankly, in college, so we shouldn’t expect first years to know this.

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8 Responses to First Year Writers

  1. I think you should expect your first years to know this. Why aren’t they writing in high school? At Fredericksburg Academy, we do teach writing as a creative process; we spend time talking about drafting, thinking, revising, peer editing, and writing again. We talk about writing one great line, one great word. We talk about developing ideas with examples, anecdotes, quotes, or facts. We write and write again. I am discouraged to think that some of them, most of them, aren’t getting it. Sigh…..

  2. Laura says:

    I haven’t seen high school writing in the public schools here yet, but if it just builds on what my kids are learning so far, I don’t have a lot of hope. There’s a lot of teaching to the test, where they know that paragraphs need to have topic sentences and a certain number of sentences to pass muster. So that’s what kids focus on instead of real thoughtful content.

    Of course, I wrote a whole dissertation about how blogging facilitates the recursive process of truly thoughtful writing. In class, though, I often talk about my own writing process and how I am not that structured about it. I have some ideas. I jot them down, and a structure starts to form. It’s like working with clay. You see what you might want it to be, but as you mold the clay, new things take shape.

    It’s a really hard process, and I tell my students that from the very beginning, that even for someone like me, writing is hard. I love teaching freshman, though, because they do seem to figure some of this all out by the end. And that’s fun to watch.

  3. I see a couple of things at work here (based on my years teaching first-year seminars, and before that, teaching high school composition):

    a. Students are rushed not only because they have yet to figure out how to manage their time, but because the adult world fills their time, overwhelms their time. If teachers continue to assign readings and such on top of the papers, how can the students possibly find that powerful noodling time? We teach them, actually, to take the easiest way out. Do we model the slow and the deep rather than the shallow and wide? Do we explore it actively as a class? Together? Before grading and responding? Do we show them our own arduous writing process? Do we teach them how to give powerful feedback? To ask tough questions of our writing? To explore connections between things in writing?

    b. Very few teachers actively build in a process–and I’m not talking 80s writing process, I am talking of the sort Laura mentions above. Assignments of the sort a few of us threw around on Brian Lamb’s blog could help them deepen their connection with the slow fermentation process as well as learn how to synthesize the ideas of others. We need to help them learn how to think more deeply by bringing playful, connective, associative thinking exercises related to their assignments into the classroom.

    c. Our assignments often feel like the same old same old to students. If we had them come up with the assignments together as well as the grading rubrics, etc., they might well become far more invested in that deep kind of thinking that you describe. That approach worked well for me.

    First-year students are capable of far more than we ever either give them credit for or help them to aspire to–it isn’t about us demanding excellence, it is about them reaching for it.


  4. Terry says:

    I have taught writing to first year college writers for many years now, and also have a son who is a first year this year. My central insight is this: the first year is a time of enormous change in all areas of their lives. Anything we can do to help structure things for them during this time when they are trying to “drink from the fire hydrant” really helps. For this reason, I advocate using a scaffolded assignment, with draft deadlines. But I also think it is important to help them deepen their thinking and not just edit a few commas. No matter how you slice it, there is no simple way to do that, but lots of discussion and modeling helps. Most kids who have had a pubic school education have not had the chance to really go deep and take risks in their writing. That is what makes teaching writing with this crowd so challenging and so rewarding. You have great insights about it, Steve.

  5. Dispersemos says:

    A great post and replies rich with good ideas. I’d just like to add one more ingredient to the recipe for helping first-years become stronger writers. If we want them to understand the process by which good bread and good wine are made, we need to do taste-testing with them. Students need to examine samples of good writing as well as engage in the process of fermenting ideas and revising their work.

    Showing students samples of good writing also provokes conversation about why good writing matters. Writing is not just something that college students do, and becoming a strong writer is one of the most important things that an individual can learn. (I tell my students that if they are not stronger writers by the end of their college career, they should ask for their money back.)

    I’ve also had good success with in-class evaluation activities — giving students sample essays or paragraphs to evaluate, using the same criteria by which their own writing will be evaluated. This helps students become familiar with the criteria and aware of how their own writing measures up.

  6. Dave says:

    As a student, I felt like these were my options:

    a) write a good paper, all in one go. Spend a medium amount of time, but don’t pick it up and revisit. Get about 85-90% of possible points on average, which gets me an A grade for the semester as a whole as long as I pay attention in class

    b) write a great paper in multiple drafts. Write a draft soon after it’s assigned, let it sit. Think about it (stress about it) for weeks, revisiting to add another paragraph and make tweaks. When I turn it in, I will get either a 95-100% score because the professor (or TA?) agrees with my conclusion, or get a 65% and a some snotty comments because the professor didn’t agree (or because I wrote a paper so different from my peers that it took them longer to think about and grade).

    And now that I’m in the real world, it turns out that everything works the same way! Spend a little time putting together a decent quality report, present it, get good praise, and be done with it. Doesn’t make sense to waste my time striving for the best when, more than half the time, the person making the decisions can’t appreciate the best.

  7. Jennifer says:

    Steve, I STRONGLY second your last point, about making it explicit to students that writing is part of the thinking and learning PROCESS, and not just a way to communicate what one already “knows”. Actually, Dave’s comment is a perfect example of how little students understand this. Part of the problem is surely that most professors don’t actually think about this consciously – I know we all know it somewhere in our brains because we experience it ourselves as we do our research, but I think many professors don’t give much conscious thought to why they are assigning writing in their classes. They just know they should assign term papers so students can ‘do research’ or ‘show knowledge’. I really don’t think it would ever occur to many of my colleagues that writing is a tool to help students learn. They just see it as a skill, separate from the content.

  8. Isaac says:

    It’s funny because my papers almost always pushed the length restrictions precisely because I learned new things as I wrote. Writing is a tool of discovery for me, because once you’ve committed your thoughts to paper (or hard drive) they can be refined or extended in ways you had not yet considered. For the same reason, my blog posts are always longer than any potential reader would prefer. When I write, I almost always see my product as an incomplete story that can be made more detailed, nuanced, and informative. (I also tend to think what I have to say is absolutely fascinating, though professors who’ve read my 50 and 60 page research papers might disagree!)

    I never had the experience as a student that Dave describes of a professor giving me a D or an F after turning something in that I had spent a great deal of time on. I imagine that the risk of this occurring is almost entirely mitigated by engaging in conversation with your professor about the nature of your topic. That way, you know what they expect, and they know what you’re driving at. Usually, by the time I turned in a paper, I think that the professor was already intimately familiar with my topic. I always wondered how much of my ‘A’ was thanks to the fact that no matter how poorly I presented certain aspects my paper, the professor already ‘knew what I meant.’

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