What Can We Teach in Freshman Writing?
Given how under-preprared our many of our students are, how can we be expected to overcome those deficiencies in one 15-week course?
I teach two levels of our required writing series. ENG 100 is the typical Freshman Writing class, complete with a number of required common assignments and readings. We (or at least I) focus on breaking bad habits from high school, building their confidence as writers, and generally preparing them for the challenges of writing for college. ENG 200, the class that I do as a peer-driven course, is more about reading challenging materials, and thus (again, for me) writing about more interesting topics. We still have a few required common assignments, but the guidelines are a little looser and more malleable (and thus my ability to make it a peer-driven course).
I have two sections of each of the courses this semester and I am noticing some pretty significant differences between the two classes, and even between the students in my ENG 100 classes from the Fall Semester versus the students in my 100 class this semester. The first and most significant difference is their openness to technology. While certainly the proficiency level of my 200-level students varies, they are embracing the opportunity to build something and experimenting with different technologies. My 100-level students were required to create their own blog. We spent an entire class in the computer lab to help them get acclimatized to blogging and made sure everyone understood how to at least post their texts to the blog. A few students rejoiced at the opportunity; most, however, treated it as yet another chore for them to have to do for class, and a chore that required them to learn a new skill, too.
Even worse are the few students who missed the class we spent in the computer lab. A few have complained about the blogging requirement to me over email, not one has come to see me to help them set up their blog. And I think this reflects an unease with technology but also the nature of my second-semester ENG 100 students. A small minority of the students are true first-semester students, starting their academics careers in January rather than the traditional fall semester start date. But most are either repeaters, students who first had to go through developmental writing, or those who avoided taking the course their first semester. The avoiders are at a disadvantage because they very often think they can't write or don't see the utility of the course. The repeaters are often already frustrated and overwhelmed, while the developmental students are behind the academic eight-ball already.
When I tweeted my initial observation, many people answered that one semester of university experience often makes a huge difference. I’ve found however that it makes a difference when the students move on to 200, not for those in my post-Christmas 100-level class. This might be in large part because of the Winter Semester Blahs as I have called them (I also like the term Jebuary to describe this time of the academic year) but I also think that students who are taking Freshman Writing in January are in a particularly vulnerable position academically. I’ve made myself available in class, on Twitter, as well as through email, and yet many of these students don’t reach out to me to ask for help or respond to my offers to help.
Another troubling trend I notice with my 100-level students this semester is their unwillingness to learn, explore, and play with the new technology that I am introducing to them. The most extreme example is when one student forgot his password and just gave up. My students will Google just about anything, except directions on how to use a given software or technology. Look, I’ve spent many hours yelling at my computer (ok, Word) because it wouldn’t do what I wanted it to do, but I stuck with it, looked it up, asked around, and figured out how to get what I needed to get done, done. In our rapidly evolving world, particularly when it comes to technology, it doesn’t matter what I teach them how to use because it’ll be obsolete, different, or irrelevant by the time they graduate. Unless they can learn how to figure things out on their own through experimentation, play, and resourcefulness, they’re going to have a hard time down the road.
Maybe I need to re-think my approach to my January 100-level classes. When I was teaching developmental writing at a school with a quarter system, I noticed a rapid decline in the attitude of the students as the quarters move along. In the fall, many succeeded. In the winter, that number diminished, as did attendance levels. In the spring, well, let’s just say that it more closely resembled a small study group rather than a typical university class. For many of the students, they failed the class not because they weren’t capable, but because they gave up. I worry about my 100-level students this semester simply because two weeks in, a not-insignificant number already seemed to have given up on the course.
The larger issue, to me, is how much can we be expected to teach during Freshman Writing. Certainly, the university-approved learning outcomes seem reasonable enough: improve reading, writing, and critical thinking. But often our students seem to lack the basic skills or qualities needed in order to make any progress in those three areas: time-management, resiliency, curiosity, self-discipline, motivation, adaptability, and creativity. I understand that part of my job is motivating the students, but at a certain point the student needs to understand that they are in my class to learn in order for any of my justifications to have any effect. And while I don’t want to go back to the days of a full dictatorship in the classroom, I spend entirely too much time trying to justify what we’re doing, time that could be spent actually doing it.
In my mind, this week is make-it-or-break-it in terms of being able to reach these students. I think this week will be all about playing with and trying to embrace the technology and have a little fun. Because next week, we start our first “formal” paper. And that is a whole other set of challenges.
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