Intimidation, Fear, Anger and the First-Year College Writer

(This is an update of a previously published post.)

I have taught Freshman Composition at Lamar University for twelve years. For four of these years, I was also the director of the University Writing Center. In my close dealings with students throughout my teaching career, I have encouraged, urged, and consoled students. However, the four years I spent as a writing center director showed me how truly destructive the student-writing relationship can be for college freshmen.

When my time with students was spent only in the classroom and in my office, I witnessed frustration and anger–tempered, however, (I later realized) by the teacher-student dynamic. Indeed, most students fear that their grades will be affected by displays of negative emotions concerning the class and the assignments, or they are too intimidated or embarrassed to fully express their concerns and weaknesses to their instructors. I know that such feelings are tempered in student-instructor conversations because I have seen much more passionate displays of writing-based emotions in the Writing Center than in my office. When students come to our tutors bearing their “beasts,” they apparently feel more secure about expressing themselves to other students, even when these peers play an instructional, and thus somewhat authoritative, role. Since the authority of the peer tutor is limited to knowledge and skill (indeed, no authority to assess), students are much more open and expressive about their sense of doom with regard to the writing classroom. As a result of this openness, I heard the complaints and impassioned rants and witnessed the tears.

“I’m writing to my school district to tell them that they robbed me of an education by focusing so much on standardized tests.”*

We’re talking about writing here–something that should be empowering and, as a result, enjoyable. Yet many college freshmen find no empowerment, much less enjoyment, in assignments asking them to narrate an important event, explore something relevant about their worlds, and express their thoughts on a text or social issue. Why? Because so many freshmen feel unprepared to perform these tasks according to our standards. Their first encounter with the course is usually a presentation on the professor’s plans for the course and expectations of grammatical correctness, fluid articulation, and critical thinking: skills that many FYC students have not yet fully developed. The first day in a freshman writing course typically serves the unprepared student, not by enlightening them to their potential for creating meaningful and articulate pieces of writing, but to emphasize how unprepared they are for this journey. Even when professors are encouraging and inspiring on that first day, for nervous, unprepared students, the “threatening” tones drown out the encouraging notes.

Because my time as a Writing Center director made me privy to first-hand accounts of student fears, anger, and feelings of ineptness, I conducted an anonymous survey of Freshmen Composition students in the summer of 2011. I conducted the survey in classes and in the Writing Center. Eighty-one surveys were returned, and the findings reveal that students come to our Writing Center fearful and intimidated because they have little prior knowledge of and ability with grammar, little sustained writing practice, and very little experience with critical thinking.

  • 70% are afraid of being wrong or unclear.
  • 59% feel unprepared concerning “the right way” to write an essay and the difference between “how the professor wants us to write vs. how we were taught in school.”
  • 53% experience intimidation and a lack of confidence.
  • 49% feel unprepared for the expectations of “having to think critically” and feel the assignments are “overwhelming” and “intimidating.”
  • 32% perceive professors as unapproachable.
Because of these elements of defeat, our writing classes (and even ourselves as the “writing experts”) intimidate many of our FYC students. When they come to writing instruction, either in a Developmental Writing course or a Freshman Composition course, they are angry at their lack of preparation, afraid of their future in the course, and, by extension, at the university. By the time many under-prepared first-year students get to our classes, it is too late for them to learn enough to be competent writers by the end of the semester. Despite the fact that our job is to teach freshmen the basics of academic writing and research, for some, there is too large of a gap to fill in a matter of four months. The students realize this–thus the emotional drama that unfolded (and I’m sure continues to unfold) at the tutoring tables.

What can we do to alleviate this intimidation, anger, and fear? We can expose them to the fluorescence of our classrooms. Expose the beasts and they cease to be beasts.

For more on this issue, read The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another by Dr. Rebecca Cox. Dr. Cox provides an insightful look at student fears and, quite tellingly, does so through a study of freshman composition students.

How do you handle such student emotions in your courses? Please share your thoughts and advice!

Happy teaching!

*This comment was made to one of my writing tutors concerning an assignment the student had to write a letter of complaint.

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One response

  1. […] each class admits to this, indicating the real possibility that such heavy marking would cause a fear of “all the [writing] things” and lead to the feeling that one ”can endeavour […]

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